The Throne Speech: National Unity in a Dangerous Time

Conservatives claim that the government's Throne Speech skirts a critical issue: national unity. Admittedly, it doesn't say much on the topic, but quantity is not always quality. In fact, the Speech contains a crucial line that we think has national unity written all over it, just not the Conservatives' brand:

Canada cannot reach net zero without the know-how of the energy sector, and the innovative ideas of all Canadians, including people in places like British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador…

This line (let's call it “The Clause”) seems pretty clear to us. It says that to achieve its highest economic and environmental goals the government needs a working partnership with energy-producing provinces – and that partnership involves the oil and gas industry.While we regard this as news, apparently the federal Conservatives don't. Indeed, their response to the Speech insists that it has nothing to say about national unity or the energy sector.Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declares that “the federal government doubled down on policies that will kill jobs, make Canada poorer and weaken national unity.”So, who is right?Let's give these people their due. We agree that Canada may be hurtling toward a national unity crisis. Unlike the last one, which was over language and culture, this one is between climate change and the economy – oil and gas, to be precise.Now, perhaps we're glass-half-full people, but we see The Clause as a promising sign for national unity. First, it acknowledges that the government's approach to climate change has been too narrow and that its views are evolving; and second, it points to a new approach for the future.Let's take these one at a time.In 2015, Justin Trudeau declared that sustainable development – i.e. balancing the environment (climate change) and the economy – was a signature policy of his government.By the end of the first mandate, this goal had been cashed out as buying and building the Trans Mountain Pipeline and investing in natural gas, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a carbon tax and tougher regulations on the industry.In hindsight, the policy seems to have done as much to divide the country and its leaders as to unite them. Still, it would be wrong to dismiss it as a failure. Without it, this Throne Speech could not promise to meet, let alone exceed, the government's emission targets.In our books, that counts as a win. As Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson rightly warns, a failure to deal effectively with climate change “will be far more significant than what we've already experienced with COVID-19.”And that brings us to the government's approach for the future.The real change here is in its focus. It is now clear that the battle with climate change is about much more than emission targets. Climate change is the catalyst for a massive restructuring of how modern economies operate, and a transition to a different way of life.We read The Clause as the Trudeau government's acknowledgment of this fact and a signal that it is ready for a course correction. While reducing greenhouse gases remains the top priority, how Canadians meet this challenge will shape our transition to a sustainable economy. And that will determine our future prosperity and way of life.The government is still forming its plan, but we know that it will require targeted innovation, restructuring, and much retraining – and we now know that the government views the oil and gas sector as a critical partner.This shouldn't be a surprise. The oil industry is Canada's largest investor in clean technology, accounting for 75 per cent of the $1.4 billion spent annually. Canadian businesses spent $8.4 billion on environmental protection in 2016, with oil and gas accounting for $3.7 billion of that.And that is just the beginning. A successful partnership between government and industry would lead to huge investments. And that's where our reading of the Speech parts company with the Conservatives and Kenney.Their view of a partnership to support industry and strengthen national unity calls on Ottawa to spend billions to revive the conventional industry.While we recognize that fossil fuels will remain in use for some time, we think Ottawa's job is to promote innovation and change. This could include significant investment in fossil fuels, but only if they contribute to innovation and transition.That's a bar industry can clear. For example, from 2000 to 2017 the emission intensity of Alberta's oil sands operations dropped by about 28%, thanks to technological improvements.So, how likely is such a partnership?The opportunity is here – right in front of us. A huge pool of labour needs work and the government is revving up to reskill them and retool the economy. The Throne Speech promises to:
  • Make the largest investment in Canadian history in training for workers
  • Establish a new fund to attract investments in making zero-emissions products
  • Support manufacturing, natural resource, and energy sectors as they work to transform to meet a net zero future
  • Create one million jobs
But oil and gas is a complex industry. Lots of leaders share the Conservatives' views on a partnership and have no fondness for the Trudeau Liberals. Others – especially those from a younger generation – recognize that to survive the industry must reinvent itself, much like IBM in the 1980s. Given the timelines, they also realize that they need government as much as it needs them.So, the encouraging news is that both sides have a deep interest in making a partnership work. The next step is to get them all in the same room.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.