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Cross-party elitism has infected Canadian politics, too

Mr. Trudeau’s recent comment that of course the oil sands would have to be phased out was an unscripted and therefore spontaneously genuine revelation of the Prime Minister’s thinking.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

People like me have a lot to answer for.

You know who I mean: those glib experts who get on the television, give TED Talks or write Globe columns extolling the virtues of free trade, immigration, balanced budgets and higher productivity. But all of these things come with a cost and those of us who believe in the virtues of open-market friendly societies have been too cavalier in asserting that economic growth will obviously create new opportunities for the people whose jobs disappear in this brave new world of economic efficiency.

People like me, but who have a rather different basket of priorities, such as climate change, urban transit, city densification and a postcarbon economy. They may have different policy recommendations but are just as haughtily dismissive of the pain that will be caused on the way to their policy nirvana. An improbable effusion of "green jobs" will make it all better.

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We make our arguments knowing that in the society of the future, there will almost certainly be opportunities for us. The blue-collar folks who have seen factories close, oil prices tank, energy prices increase and imports rise see little reason to be so optimistic. It is now a truism that it is this kind of fear and anxiety that fuelled the election victory of Donald Trump, but there is a lot of self-congratulatory rhetoric in Canada (egged on by The Economist magazine) that we are different and it cannot happen here.

Rubbish. It is easy to spot the kind of cross-party elite arrogance here that was such fertile ground for the populist rebellion south of the border. Two parallel examples drove this home for me recently.

The first was the badly misjudged plank in the Ontario Tories platform in the last election to eliminate 100,000 public sector jobs. Even though the Conservatives had been tipped to win the election, that promise turned the tide against them. An almost palpable feeling of disbelief swept the province as people digested the idea that at a time of great economic uncertainty a party was promising to make disappear 100,000 well-paying jobs distributed among communities across Ontario.

People who had such a job, or had a friend or relative in one, or lived in smaller communities where such jobs are prized, or owned businesses that count such people among their customers, were all spooked. The Liberals easily painted the Tories as out-of-touch and callous.

What brought that example to mind for me was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent unscripted comment that of course the oil sands would have to be phased out.

Even after the fall in oil prices and the bloodletting in the oil patch, I've seen data suggest that as many as 150,000 Albertans still get their work from the oil sands. That's not even counting the many thousands in the rest of the country who get their jobs thanks to the economic activity generated by the industry, including in manufacturing.

And like most natural resource economy jobs, they are well paid and can't be outsourced to Asia because the stuff has to be taken out of the ground here. It is also the same industry that was repeatedly given a clean environmental bill of health by the U.S. State Department as it examined the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Producing petroleum in Canada makes no net contribution to worldwide consumption. The only issue is whether we will get wealthy from our resources or allow others to get wealthy from theirs.

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Mr. Trudeau's spinmeisters can dress this up any way they like. This was an unscripted and therefore spontaneously genuine revelation of the Prime Minister's thinking. An industry that creates such value for Canada, meets perhaps the world's most stringent environmental standards, and employs many tens of thousands of people across the country can be waved away as something to be "phased out" with nary a peep about what might take its place for the Canadians who work there and their children who hope to.

No party, therefore, has a monopoly on this kind of policy arrogance. Every party has been guilty of assuming that, when they are in power, society somehow belongs to them and that Canadians, their jobs, industries, energy prices and housing costs are their plaything.

But the legacy of such Olympian policy condescension is bitterness and fear on the part of people with few tools to protect themselves and who feel cast aside and downtrodden. Policy elites may jet off to Davos and the UN to tell each other that it is all for our own good. Make no mistake, however. The feelings of the displaced and those who fear they will be next must be confronted, not airily dismissed.

We've all been warned.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

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About the Author
Head of Macdonald-Laurier Institute

Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa. More

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