Diane Francis on Canadian Politics

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The New Canada

May 23 Post column:

NEW YORK CITY -- Canada's Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty, brought an upbeat message to Wall Street and to expatriates living in New York City yesterday about "the New Canada".

"There's optimism up there and you should think about coming home," he told a lunchtime audience at the Canadian Club. "I'm told there's a bit of a reverse brain drain in the financial sector these days."

Canadian unemployment is the lowest it has been in 30 years and employment rates have set new records, he said. Increasing investments in new machinery will enhance productivity levels in manufacturing, which is being hurt by the soaring Canadian dollar.

"There's going to be C$5.6 billion of investments in the auto sector," he said. "And C$45 billion in the oil sands by 2010. Exports will triple in ten years."

He also fielded questions from expats such as the cost of bilingualism and the danger of commodity price volatility to the Canadian economy and its currency.

"We like to avoid sudden changes and watch commodity prices carefully. We also watch U.S. housing starts," he told the audience of 200. "But these are markets and markets do what they will do."

As for the Canadian dollar, he cited China, other Asian economies and U.S. fiscal deficits as being part of the problem.

"I don't talk about the value of the Canadian dollar, but it certainly has borne the brunt of the reduction in the value of the U.S. dollar," he said. "There are three big risks in the global economy: global economic imbalances; the inflexibility of certain Asian currencies and concern about some fiscal policies in western countries that don't lead to balanced budgets."

Another audience member asked why French is emphasized when Mandarin or Cantonese are far more important languages in the global economy.

"Canada has two official languages. My ability in French is limited and it's something I'm working on," said Mr. Flaherty, a native Montrealer. "But there are more languages spoken in Toronto than any other city in the world and in my view that's an enormous asset."

In a press conference, and then in a private interview, Mr. Flaherty elaborated on his remarks.

Q: What about bank mergers and allowing banks to sell insurance?

A: "We have said there will be no change in the status quo. Parliament has a role to play in this and certain of its committees will look at the issues."

Q: Will the new Tory government allow the takeover of Falconbridge or Inco or both by a foreign corporation such as Xstrata Inc . or others?

A: It's not my responsibility as Minister of Finance. But the minister involved is reviewing that. Obviously, we're more inclined to be free and fair traders. But I'm not referring to any specific transaction. And there are other issues involved in this case I'm told.

Q: You and Treasury Board minister John Baird are searching to cut C$1 billion from spending this year, are you looking at cutting the CBC's subsidy which is nearly that size?

A: "We're going to look at everything in coming weeks. There are no sacred cows."

Q: You're top of the polls, could win a majority if you called an election sooner rather than later, but are you going to do that given the cost of an election (C$200 million)?

A: "We want to govern and we are not shy about putting forward our priorities even though we are a minority government. We are keeping our commitments about tax cuts and accountability. We think we have voters who voted for change."
"But I have noted recently a more obstreperous attitude in Parliament. And we still have our budget bill and accountability bill to pass, then we will go from there. The Liberals will have no new leader until December."

Q: What do you think Canada will look like in five years if you win a majority?

A: "It will look more like Ireland, more dynamic, more attractive to investors, brighter, more positive, outward looking."

Q: Are you talking to the Governor of the Bank of Canada about keeping interest rates down to take the steam out of the Canadian dollar's rise?

A: "We don't speak about it. We do have discussions and it's my legal obligation to do so."

Q: What do you feel about Kyoto?

A: "It's a failure with unrealistic targets, a policy written on the back of an envelope by the former government, according to Scott Brison, now running for the Liberal leadership. It's a charade. Emissions are up. It's a serious issue and we have allocated funds to mass transit and reduction of emissions."

Q: Are you surprised at how well the government is doing in the polls in Canada?

A: "Polls are polls. But I think it's a credit to Prime Minister Stephen Harper because Canadians are thirsty for a real leader. They don't agree with everything he has done but he is businesslike and gets it done. And I don't have to flatter him either because I'm already doing okay. I'm Finance Minister.


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