Purple is the colour of Canada's future growth

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04/13/2016

BY: EDWARD GREENSPON / APRIL 13, 2016 The Globe and Mail

Edward Greenspon is president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum

Canada needs to map out a new growth plan. Everyone knows that. What nobody yet knows is how to organize ourselves to plumb the frontiers of future growth and who does what.

The payoff of getting it right is enormous. Assume for a second a steady-state growth rate of 2 per cent a year over the next 50 years, essentially the working lives of today’s undergraduates. Then imagine that good public policy can layer on an extra one-third of 1 per cent a year, hardly a moonshot.

 

The difference is an economy at Canada’s 200th birthday $1-trillion larger than otherwise would be the case.

With a population of, say, 60 million by then, that’s about $50,000 a family – year-in and year-out. It’s worth figuring out the route.

Last summer, a drink in Calgary with Joe Lougheed, son of the late and great premier of Alberta Peter Lougheed, reminded me of how this usually works best in Canada. Governing from 1971 to 1985, Mr. Lougheed was a policy visionary and implementer.

He created the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, designed to hold back a share of non-renewable energy revenues for future generations. His model was adopted from Norway to the Emirates – nearly everywhere but Alberta, where successors preferred to live in the moment.

Mr. Lougheed was early into innovation, investing heavily in medical research to prepare for a post-petroleum knowledge economy. He created a mini-National Research Council for the oil sands devoted to nothing but improving recovery technologies, an institution that may have saved Alberta heartache and conferred competitive advantage if it, too, had not been subsequently scrapped.

For all his success, Mr. Lougheed wasn’t always universally popular in the business community, especially when he urged pacing the development of the oil sands.

“Some people called him Purple Peter,” Joe told me.

“Why Purple Peter?” I asked.

“Went in blue and came out red,” Joe shrugged.

In fact, he went in purple and came out purple. And if purple represents government and business doing what they each do best with common purpose, therein lies the foundation for rejuvenating an economy that can no longer count on commodities to cars to provide locomotion.

Enhancing long-term growth in Canada requires bringing together the vision and long-term capacities of a confident public sector with the creativity and operational discipline of private operators. And, because it’s 2016, the concurrence of the citizenry is inescapably part of the mix.

Purple was the colour that rescued Syncrude, the second oil sands plant, when it was deemed too risky for private operators alone.

Purple was the colour of the transcontinental railroad, the Seaway, the Trans-Canada highway and, more recently, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, whose director Arthur McDonald was co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics.

SNO, 2,072 metres down a working mine shaft, has rewarded Canada with something of a global product mandate in subatomic particle research, with 100 partner institutions worldwide directly involved.

Such century-long investments reap multigenerational dividends, yet go beyond reasonable planning cycles for corporations. If long-termism prevails, they provide a model for the next round of infrastructure spending.

Economic orthodoxies come and go. In the wake of the low-growth 1970s, Western voters rejected the interventionist model of the postwar era.

In the wake of low growth since 2008, voters in Canada overturned the small-government consensus born of the Thatcher-Reagan era.

What comes next is still taking shape. In her book, The Entrepreneurial State, economist Mariana Mazzucato points to the indispensable and underappreciated role of governments in providing entrepreneurs the prerequisites for innovations. Unless the modern state is strategic, flexible and mission-oriented, she warns, top minds will not find it an “honour” to work on the public side of the equation.

A key question for Canada is whether a historically successful public service is sufficiently of the digital times to grab hold of the emerging frontiers of growth.

Being a modern Purple Peter starts with vision, confidence and ambition.