Diane Francis on Canadian Politics

Saturday, February 11, 2006

How about getting Canadians working???

Diane Francis column Tuesday Feb. 7:

NEW YORK CITY -- Australia is desperately looking for tradesmen and has undertaken its largest immigration drive in 40 years across Europe. Like Canada, Australia is a resource-rich country in the middle of a commodity price boom without enough skilled workers to realize its potential.

The Australians are offering four-year visas to anyone under 45 years of age with six years’ experience in a trade that’s on Australia’s “skills shortage list”. They promise entry within three working days,

Canada, on the other hand, faces an even greater shortage, particularly in its booming oil sands region
And yet, Ottawa’s immigration department remains snail-like in its processing of workers with needed skills. Even more puzzling, unemployment among construction workers in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces is between 30% and 40%, according to StatsCan figures.

There’s also thousands of illegal construction workers who have filled shortages in booming Ontario from Ukraine and Poland. They would love to get visas so they could move out west or wherever there was work. But Ottawa has yet to admit, or process, these people.

The province with the biggest looming crisis is Alberta and its Premier Ralph Klein has begun to look for solutions.
"There are lots of big projects on the books here in Alberta, and the only thing holding them back is a shortage of skilled labour,” he said,

For instance, Alberta is contemplating new roads to link the oil sands region to remote aboriginal communities in order to tap manpower.

The province has also earmarked millions to train another 5,600 technical workers. The number of licensed apprentices has increased by 50 per cent since 1997. The government is working with school boards to promote the trades as a viable career choice, and moves are being made to try and open doors to temporary foreign skilled workers to help meet the demand, he added.

Meanwhile, the oil patch is not standing still. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s oil sands play is the country’s most ambitious. The company’s contractor, Horizon Construction Management Ltd., has undertaken an aggressive and innovative recruitment strategy. It has overcome the accommodation and transportation problem by creating a fly-in camp at a nearby resort to house workers. Some are on a two-week-on, one-week-off work stint.

“Horizon invites all qualified trades people and indentured apprentices to express an interest in joining our contractor’s teams,” reads its website. “The Horizon Project offers flights to and from worksite, first class camp facilities and leading edge work force and skills upgrading opportunities.”

The trades sought are: carpenter; scaffolder; skilled laborer; ironworker; plumber; crane operator; pipe fitter/steamfitter; millwright; electrician; welder; instrumentation; insulator; equipment operator; boilermaker and cement finisher.

Debbie Wershler, staffing manager at Duke Energy, said in a recent Canwest interview, that individual companies have been trying to solve many of these problems without much success and now they have a platform to find common solutions in an industry that is fiercely competitive.

"The best way to make a big impact is for all of the industry to pull together," says Wershler. She says if companies wait too long, they will find themselves scrambling to find the workers required for the industry to increase production by the 50 to 100 per cent expected within the next 10 years.

Fortunately, industry organizations are beginning to consult with one another in the country’s petroleum regions – the oil sands; the east coast; the far north and the traditional basins in the three westernmost provinces.

Add to those challenges will be the thousands of workers needed for the construction of pipelines to link the oil sands, far north and Alaska gas to markets.

Large companies can mount campaigns to attract employees, but the issue affects all businesses in western Canada. A recent Canadian Federation of Independent Business survey in Alberta found that 60% of its members cited worker shortages as their biggest challenge.

What’s needed is pretty obvious. More efficiency and targeting in terms of immigration and more encouragement of kids by their teachers and parents to enter trades.

But governments can and should only do so much. The real solution – given Canada’s western boom and eastern stagnation -- is for the market to adjust. Western Canada’s businesses and oil companies will have to dramatically up the ante to attract workers. As they increase wages, along with housing and other benefits, the workers will come.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Teapot Tempest

Prime Minister Stephen Harper named a “lean and mean” cabinet yesterday devoid of patronage plums to unseasoned rookies.

Controversy over his appointment of a Liberal, who just crossed the floor, and a Quebec lawyer via the Senate have generated some heat but no light. Harper is a guy who picks quality, not tokens or favorites. Stay tuned. This little tempest is very forgettable.

My Feb. 7 National Post column:

The reduction to 26 from 40 is a welcome step in a country where the cabinet has often been the size of Jamaica’s parliament and sometimes populated by persons whose only obvious attribute was loyalty to the PM.

Stephen Harper is a loner, politically speaking, and has chosen a cabinet based on his opinion as to their suitability for the job. That means he will just as easily unseat those who don’t work out and replace them with others more capable.

His appointment of Jim Flaherty as finance minister is welcome. Jim is really smart, hard working and distinguished himself in the financial portfolio in the Mike Harris Tory government.

It’s also really important that Flaherty has a key job because he proved in Ontario that he’s a no-nonsense executive who both inspires, or fires, civil servants who are insubordinate or who insist on answering to other political agendas.

Likewise, Harris cabinet ministers Tony Clement and John Baird have good track records. And Peter MacKay will be a credible and personable Foreign Affairs Minister.

Bottom line is that Canada’s business community should be much relieved at this turn of events. Finally, the country has a “board of directors” that understands and admires free enterprise.

Hopefully, this minority government will have at least 18 months or more to implement some important policies and convince more Canadians that it’s time that the business of Canada was business.

Here are the priorities as I see it:
1. If this government does nothing else it must address the over-taxation of Canadians. The lowering of the GST is a brilliant, progressive form of tax cut which benefits middle and lower income Canadians who spend most if not all of their disposable income and are fully tax on those expenditures. Capital gains taxes and others which enhance capital markets and job creation are also badly in need of reduction.

2. There should not be any in-country bank mergers allowed, but the Tories should open up the banking system to foreigners. Mergers are merely financial engineering exercises which will cause huge job losses and reduce choices available to businesses.

3. Re-create the Department of Manpower and Immigration to insure that newcomers will have required skills which means that all entrants will land jobs immediately. Processes should be revamped so that skilled workers can gain entry within weeks not years.

4. Waiting times are not only a problem when it comes to health care. The Conservative government must force the Departments of Environment, Industry, Transportation and Natural Resources to deal promptly with project requests and decisions. Waiting periods are excessive and unnecessary, often due to anti-business obstructionism inside the civil service. The country must streamline its processes.

5. Public Works, the source of so much corruption, should open up its tendering process internationally and the Requests for Proposal (RFP) process should be eliminated for the most part. Where necessary these should be adjudicated by independent people and results should be completely transparent.

6. Similarly, defence contracts should be transparent and open to the lowest bidder irrespective of what region of the country to avoid the favoritism of the past.

7. This government should also make it a priority to repair the frayed relationship with the Americans in Washington. Of course, their election is a de facto fix. That’s because they get it. The Americans are not there to heckle and bait for some imagined political gain as the Liberals have done.

Most interesting about this election is that Quebeckers voted strongly for a new pro-business party and rejected the statist, socialist Bloc or the patronage-riddled Liberals. The number of ridings where Tories came in as a strong second, bodes well for the possibility of another Tory election win.

But the Tories have to prove they can deliver credible and improved government services.
They also have to demonstrate that Canada can match American living standards, and enhance its social safety net, by shrinking the size of its federal government and making it more efficient and business-like.

To do so, Canada must capitalize on the commodity price boom underway. That means cutting red tape when it comes to starting needed mega projects, whether they be in the tar sands, the arctic or infrastructure such as pipelines, roads or bridges to facilitate the flow of goods south of the border.

It also means mending fences in order to enhance trade opportunities. All over the world.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

O Canada

Canadian expats are an interesting crew but their sentiments are well expressed in a recent blog by an Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan. Seems his story isn't newsworthy according to the elite's mouthpiece, the CBC.

That broadcaster, with a tiny market share and annual taxpayer subsidy of $800 million, has long outlived its purpose and should be privatized or commercialized.

Stay tuned.