Straight Talk
DAVID AKIN - NDP crimps Harper's energy sales job

Prime Minister Stephen Harper.



OTTAWA - In July 2006, just a few months into his tenure as prime minister, Stephen Harper stood in front of a business crowd in a hotel ballroom in London, England, and described Canada as "an emerging energy super power."

It was a line that reporters in the room - I was one of them - seized on as we looked for clues about how his young government would set itself apart from its Liberal predecessor as it conducted foreign affairs.

While Harper has often changed many of his foreign policy positions - China being the most notable - this metaphor of the "energy super power" has been an enduring and constant phrase in dozens of speeches he has given to foreign audiences around the world.

And yet, Harper and his cabinet ministers continue to have trouble convincing potential foreign buyers of our energy products that we can deliver on his promise.

This week, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver is in Japan and Korea, where he has been pushing Canadian natural gas exports.

It's a fortuitous time to be doing so as Japan has decided to shut down its nuclear power operations in the wake of Fukushima and will need gas to run its power plants.

Already, the Japanese buy one third of all natural gas exported in the world. The Koreans are buyers for 15% of the world market for natural gas.

And yet, as Oliver told me in a telephone interview from Tokyo this week, Canada is still a tough sell to these most eager of buyers and he and other Conservatives blame their political opponents in Ottawa and in B.C. for sowing these seeds of doubt in foreign markets.

"We're definitely competing with other suppliers including Qatar and Australia and a number of others," Oliver said.

"What [buyers] need to know is: Are we going to be able to deliver? Will we get the infrastructure built? Is our regulatory system efficient enough to make sure the approvals come in? Will we have the labour force to get it built? Are there any impediments to export? Will we be reliable? All those are issues."

While Oliver was overseas selling Canadian energy this week, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has been thundering away in the House of Commons, asking Harper how the federal government will help the one million unemployed Canadians find work.

Harper reminded Mulcair that two NDP MPs were dispatched to Washington last November to campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, a project which would certainly have helped create several thousand new jobs in Canada.

"What the leader of the NDP asked me to do - cancel NAFTA, block all kinds of trade, he even sent a trade mission to Washington to argue against Canadian exports - are the things that destroy Canadian jobs," Harper said.

Like it or not, we are an "energy superpower." And as Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said last week, this gives Canada the potential for "enormous benefits, including higher incomes and greater economic security."

But Carney also challenged those on both sides of the House of Commons "to develop our commodities intelligently and sustainably."

"New energy infrastructure - pipelines and refineries - could bring more of the benefits of the commodity boom to more of the country," he said in a speech in Calgary.

We do that and Oliver will find his overseas sales job to be a lot easier.

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