Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, here to tout her then-two-day-old federal budget, said she looked out her Vancouver hotel window Thursday morning at the spring sunshine and that it affirmed this was the most beautiful place on earth.
For this she earned polite applause from the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade breakfast gathering. It was, though, the last applause she would hear until it was time for us to go, more in relief than in appreciation. Her gauge of the weather was the last accurate reading of the atmosphere she would occupy in her early day.
For someone with a decade of experience in public life, Freeland put on a performance of astonishing misjudgment. I watched the crowd leave and lost count of the heads shaking in disbelief; the body language spoke volumes about disappointing disconnection from a politician with a generally strong record.
Only a day earlier the board had released its quarterly survey of business leaders. Their fears of lingering inflation, costs of inputs, high interest rates, labour shortages and taxes were a world apart from the planet Freeland portrayed or the policies she argued would drive a robust economy in the years ahead.
Lukewarm would be generous in describing the reviews of her Tuesday budget. Mostly experts are freaking at the lack of fiscal anchors, the indefinite projections of deficits, and the annual upsizing of program spending.
Freeland decided that the best defence is a good offence, so she was into taking to task anything that might discomfort her messaging. When she wasn’t insulting the crowd, she was lecturing or refuting them.
It started with her assertion, premised on zero evidence, that struggle was what others experience and was “maybe not so challenging for those in this room.” The best she could offer about the audience’s connection to strife is that “we know people who are struggling.”
One of those struggling was her. At that point, 10 or so past the hour, the room was lost.
From there she claimed credit for the arrival of a national dental plan, using again her line about it being the end of an era in which “you know the size of a person’s paycheque by the size of their smile.” The plan is, of course, more of a creature of the NDP and likely the difference-maker in its support of the Liberals when her Tuesday budget faces a confidence vote shortly in the Commons.
She likened the federal support of a larger grid of electricity as some kind of new national dream, “the railway of the 21st century,” and claimed “we are absolutely competitive” with America in incentives for the clean economy, even though it’s quite clear that is untrue.
Still, she said she was “throwing down the gauntlet” for private investment in doubling electricity capacity by 2050, “and I’m counting on you to do it.” Fair enough, but when pressed by board president Bridgitte Anderson (not once, but twice) to streamline regulatory processes for the very projects she sees as essential for the national interest, she pivoted into the need to balance those projects with our commitments to the environment and Indigenous reconciliation. It was a long-winded, word-salad way of saying no.
When asked about the country’s sub-par productivity, what she termed “the perennial Canadian question,” she pointed to the creation last year (productively only launching this year) of an innovation agency patterned on Finland’s to get us out of our funk. Definitely no applause was forthcoming with that response.
When pushed to explain why Canada was slow to promote LNG development as an antidote to Russia’s energy blackmail of Europe, she admitted things could have moved faster but dismissed the notion that our country isn’t poised to capitalize.
When questioned why there was no additional budget investment this time in housing, she noted last year’s $10 billion commitment and took a shot at provinces and municipalities, saying they needed to step up and step over the same neighbourhood opposition to development she experiences in her downtown Toronto riding – that everyone favours building until it’s near them. At that point, most everyone in the audience had been offered an opportunity to be affronted.
And then there was the finale.
Freeland decided it was time to speak French, something anyone who wants to keep the door open to the prime ministership needs to tick the box on at every public gathering, and ended her onstage discussion with a languid, perfunctory pep talk. I can report it wouldn’t have clicked with anyone in English, either.
It was a bad start to her day, and out of compassion one could only wish she’d had for the audience, I can only hope it didn’t worsen.
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.