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Harper plays nice guy on Keystone: Erica Alini

Who knew the PM could be so charming?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, May 16, 2013 (Photo: Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, May 16, 2013 (Photo: Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

Everyone expected Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip today to New York to once again be all about pitching the Keystone XL pipeline, but it wasn’t. In fact, he said little about it before fielding questions from former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and the audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.

He did manage to rattle off the well-known facts: the oilsands account for only of 1/10th of 1% of global emissions; the pipeline would create thousands of American jobs; Canada has already reduced the emission intensity from heavy-oil extraction by 25%. And he did recite the usual talking points: Would Americans rather buy heavy oil from Canada or Venezuela? Would they rather see Alberta’s oil move by pipeline or by rail, the much more environmentally hazardous Option B? But then, federal and provincial officials have been repeating all of the above ad nauseam over the past few months.

Neither was there much in the way of rhetoric. No new grandiose neologism (the favourite of late is “North American energy security,” which presumably aims to get Americans to think about the energy market as the missing piece in the larger economic integration process underpinned by NAFTA). No memorable quotes for editorial headlines.

The conversation quickly moved on to a variety of other topics—from unrest in Syria to the rights of indigenous women—with the PM making no effort to steer it back to Keystone.

Forgoing pipeline talk might well have been part of the strategy, as he otherwise delivered a brilliant performance. There was no trace of the Harper we all know—the secretive PM who doesn’t like to sit down with the media, the “control the message” freak. Instead this was a smiling, affable Harper, equal parts sharp and confident—the kind of guy anyone should want to do business with.

Perhaps that was just the point. Perhaps it was all about projecting the right image of Canada.

Harper presented a country that was thriving, self-assured and friendly. And one ready to share its natural resource wealth with Uncle Sam, yet not about to beg for the privilege.

While bragging about Canada’s economic record (even though those rights are arguably wearing out), he tried to balance the self-congratulation by professing a deep admiration for America’s entrepreneurial spirit. He still believes in the American Dream, he said. He blames Washington for tarnishing that dream in the short-term, but is confident a new phoenix will raise from the ashes. There’s nothing many Americans want to hear more these days.

On foreign investment, he delivered perhaps the government’s clearest statement yet on its position and goals. Ottawa is perfectly aware that the oilsands and the resource sector in general are a capital-intensive business and that there isn’t enough money in Canada to properly develop them. As such, he said, the government welcomes foreign money—just not the foreign state-owned enterprises (SOE) that could nationalize key assets.

Asked to share advice on how to get universal healthcare right, he reminded Americans that Canada’s Conservatives unambiguously support the concept, but wisely avoided lecturing them on the hot-button issue.

On climate change, he pointed fingers at the big polluters among the emerging economies who’ve been so far spared from hard targets on green-house-gas emissions. But he did not deny the importance of global warming, and did not go on the defensive. He’s no climate change denier, the underlying message seemed to be; he simply believes that global negotiations aren’t likely to effectively tackle the problem. Technology is the key to reconcile economic growth with environmental preservation, he said. In other words: the market has a better chance to fix it than does the government.

Regardless of whether what Harper said today squares with what his government has actually been doing, his performance was stellar. He came off as a reasonable, eminently likeable guy. And at the end of the day that might be the best way to pitch Keystone.

Erica Alini is a California-based reporter and a regular contributor to, where she covers the U.S. economy. Follow her on Twitter: @ealini.