As a newly-appointed Cabinet minister in 1985, I visited Hong Kong. It was a revealing visit. Although it was a key commercial centre, it was clearly not “first world.”
The infrastructure was overstressed—a frightening manoeuvre past apartment buildings was the visitor’s greeting to the old airport. The technology was deficient. Education results were far behind western standards.
I loved the energy and excitement of Hong Kong, but it was still part of the developing world. I felt Canada had little to learn from this economy.
Last week, I went back…to an even more revealing picture. Hong Kong, like its Asian neighbours, has arrived. The infrastructure is outstanding, often better than North America’s. The technology? We buy from them now. And for a growing middle class in Hong Kong and across Asia, education results are rising sharply.
Returning home from Asia I realize that most Canadians are happily unaware of these realities.
Yet, the enormous and welcome progress throughout Asia and the fast-developing economies in other regions is rewriting the rules for the global economy. This is the challenge of our times, with new players emerging eager and aggressive to meet and surpass our standard of living.
To keep our privileged way of life, Canadians have to compete against the best in the world, whether they are located here or on the other side of the globe. And we can’t win a battle most people don’t know we’re fighting.
To focus attention on the challenges we face, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce last year issued the Top 10 Barriers to Competitiveness, identifying some of the things we do to ourselves which work against our success.
Today I released the 2013 version.
We kept some of last year’s items—you don’t change the policies of decades in one year—and added new issues we see rising to critical importance.
Some of our items are stubborn structural problems in the Canadian economy; others are temporary, self-inflicted wounds.
Some require government to fix them; others will take cooperation from business and labour.
Leading our list again this year is the growing problem of skills shortages. Last year we conducted our largest-ever consultation on this subject with businesses in every region.
We heard dismaying stories of persistent youth unemployment, inadequate training programs, poor recruiting of foreign students and immigrants.
But despite the negatives, I came away enthusiastic about our potential. I can see that Canada, in its government, its business organizations and in its educators, is mobilizing for a revolution in human resource development. I saw nobody who disregarded the problem. I saw thousands eager to solve it.
We kept skills as our number one issue this year, and we’re looking forward to working with all these partners to attack this problem.
We again listed our over-costly and complex tax system, the needless damage of interprovincial barriers and the depleted venture capital sector as key barriers.
But we also identified some new issues that require a national effort to overcome.
You can’t open a newspaper without seeing the impact of having all our oil and gas sold to a single customer. The United States needs less of our resources, and other markets need them more than ever. But 99 per cent of our petroleum products are landlocked in North America, selling at a 40 per cent discount to the world price. Getting our resources to the world market is a critical national priority.
While some governments across the country are spending heavily on public infrastructure, there is little coordination between them. Again, we divide our economy and reduce our efficiency. Over the next twenty years, we will see hundreds of billions of dollars spent on public infrastructure—drinking water, bridges, electricity and even humble sewage systems. Regardless of which government pays, we taxpayers are ultimately putting up the money. So, this is another challenge on which we can show ingenuity and cooperation to refurbish these essential services.
Finally, the last decade has been tough on our tourism sector. This is a $70 billion dollar sector, but it’s stumbling badly as the dollar rises and our U.S. customers struggle. A wide-ranging effort to drive down aviation costs, increase service levels, and most of all, strengthen our tiny marketing program is critical to diversifying our visitor base. Again, an issue that touches every region.
Last year we called for sweeping changes to the regulatory system, especially in the natural resource sector. The government responded with contentious, but entirely appropriate, changes. Natural resources drive our economy. Duplicative, inefficient regulation is no friend to anyone.
Progress on this file persuades us that change is possible, if we make our case strongly.
We are calling on own membership, on governments, on labour organizations, on educators and industry leaders to tackle and overcome these barriers. Tolerating them any more is folly.
Canadians have the brains, drive and opportunities to compete and win. We just need to give ourselves the chance.