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Traders must travel

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Travel chill is never far away for taxpayer-sensitive politicians and senior bureaucrats. The most recent and dramatic illustration is the public outcry over the $45,000 it cost to fly former Alberta premier Alison Redford and an aide to Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

It goes without saying that governments of all stripes have to be prudent with taxpayers’ money. But prudence is not the same as abstinence. If we hope to open new markets, expand beyond the U.S. and continue to grow the economy, our elected representatives have to be on the road, elbowing it out with officials from other provinces, departments and states.

There is no substitute for being there, especially in Asia and markets that are new for Canada; just ask the private sector or look at the long list of visits from other governments. While travel may seem glamorous and fun, those who actually do it in the public and private sectors know that it is anything but. Travel is a grind. It takes you away from your home and family, and when you return work is piled on your desk.

Before criticizing the costs of travelling to promote Canada, a province or a city, taxpayers need to ask two questions which haven’t been posed.

First, are the costs reasonable? Those seeking an answer should not compare a premier’s $16,000 trip to Chicago to what a family of four spends on summer vacation. Instead, the more meaningful comparison is what Gov. Rick Perry spent on his last trip to Chicago to promote the energy interests of Texas. Or, in Asia, what New South Wales Premier Barry O’Farrell is spending to regain business for Australia.

This is not to say that we have to match every competing jurisdiction dollar for dollar. Rather, it is to say that looking at what our competitors are doing helps to ground our conversations here in Canada in reality. So far, such discussions have been almost completely absent.

Second, what do these trips achieve? It can be hard to put a dollar value on the economic benefits of two leaders meeting or a trade mission, but the information is available, often online and free of charge, along with the expense reports.

Personal visits with key people in foreign markets will also help counteract the growing reputation of Canada as an unreliable supplier.

The strike at Port Metro Vancouver, the ongoing grain backlog and our inability to get pipelines built in a timely manner are raising questions in the markets we want to expand into. Our governments need to meet face-to-face with foreign stakeholders to reassure them that such delivery challenges can be overcome.

One of the lingering questions overseas is why Canada cannot get a pipeline built to get oil to a waiting Asia. One foreign trade official put it to me this way in a recent phone call: "Are we missing something over here? Are you guys doing this stuff on purpose? Are you trying to squander opportunity?"

Sending our elected leaders to explain the situation will not fully restore confidence in Canada’s export economy on its own. But it is a start and certainly worth the cost of plane tickets.

Canada has enjoyed some notable successes in attracting investment, opening markets and raising Canada’s profile abroad. This past year, Alberta signed an energy cooperation deal with China, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s visit to the Association of South East Asian Nations in Jakarta was a huge success and the federal government has concluded negotiations for a bilateral trade agreement with South Korea — our first such agreement with an Asian country.

Despite this, our current international dance is seeing us take one step forward and then one step back. The damage that is being done, both in terms of lost international sales and tarnished reputation, is largely self-inflicted. Our fights over everything from pipelines to foreign travel expenses are disconnected from the fact that we need trade to prosper.

Acting like an export powerhouse requires key players to engage in reasonable travel. In our push for fiscal prudence, we mustn’t lose sight of the larger goal.

 

Carlo Dade is the director of the centre for trade & investment at the Canada West Foundation, the only think tank with an exclusive focus on policies that shape the quality of life in western Canada. www.cwf.ca.

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