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Why Mulroney Is Right to Think Big Again About Canada

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So now Brian Mulroney says we should dance with the ones that could bring us down -- or bring us prosperity. We should listen to him.

Mulroney, the former prime minister known for his big projects and his checkered past, recently gave a startling speech admonishing Ottawa to get its act together managing our vast resource wealth -- including reaching a deal with native Canadians and on protecting the environment.

When he was in power in the 1980s, Mulroney is remembered, famously, for saying "ya dance with the ones that brung ya" -- which was widely interpreted at the time that the brash upstart from Quebec wasn't afraid of rewarding the party faithful.

Mulroney is now saying we need "sensible" policies at home that will allow us to dance with our friends, particularly those in Washington, so we can keep this export-oriented country humming. He told his audience, filled with Tory heavyweights, that Canada must pursue a "coherent" energy policy that would also include a sustainable environmental plan and a "principled partnership with First Nations."

The subtext was that if we don't look after our environment and our indigenous people it will be increasingly hard to find customers for our unprocessed resources because the world is changing and becoming more concerned about global warming and sustainability.

The speech was a big slap upside of the head of the ever darker regime of Stephen Harper. The Harper government has fumbled the resource issue by believing it can bamboozle its way forward without regard to First Nations, the environment and to the needs of the rest of the economy.

Basically Harper and his former natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, thought they could talk big and loud in Washington and somehow the Obama Administration would buckle and approve the Keystone Pipeline, which is key for those who think our prosperity is about shipping out more and more bitumen to Texas. Now Canada doesn't know if that pipeline will ever get the go ahead because the hardball tactics have floundered.

Mulroney was a man of big ideas, and some were good. His constitutional dreams were a drag on the country but the Goods and Services Tax proved an amazing money maker and free trade with the United States (and later with Mexico) was a sweeping deal few thought could ever be reached with our southern friends.

So now he has another big idea, a broad new deal with the U.S. on energy that would include a restriction on carbon emissions. "I can envision a new North American accord on carbon emissions as part of this partnership -- building on our record of combatting acid rain and cleaning up the Great Lakes together."

As refreshing it was to hear big new ideas, Mulroney's plan didn't go far enough. First off it leaves the impression that Canada's economic potential is the sum of the unprocessed barrels it can export. We are much more than that. We also we need to face the fact that unrestrained development of Alberta's tar sands is part of Canada's credibility problem.

We can still make useful, higher valued products for the world. We need to be winning in manufacturing again so that we are adding value to products rather just shipping unprocessed resources to keep the motors running in Beijing or Boston.

We need a realistic tax of carbon and a debate on how to use the funds. What about using some of the revenue to support tax breaks or other incentives to spur renewable industries such as building electric car components, turbines, solar panels and leading edge batteries?

Mulroney and many others see the writing is on the wall for unrestrained resource development and that the world is crying out for more sustainable ways of doing business, especially with the release of the latest report from the U.N. which maintains we have just a few years to pare harmful greenhouse gas emissions and embrace renewable energy.

Kitimat, British Columbia, is just the last example of citizens waking up to the idea that we can't just ship our carbon products around without regard to the bigger cost. The city strongly rejected in a non-binding plebiscite the abhorrent Northern Gateway pipeline that involves moving Alberta bitumen across the Rockies to the B.C. coast and sending it out by tanker along our still-pristine Pacific coast.

So let's start thinking big again, bigger than Mulroney, and easily bigger than the small minds that have been hogging the dance floor for far too long in Ottawa.

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