Business head takes issue with Flaherty, Carney complaint about investment

OTTAWA – Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has again called on Canada’s corporate community to use their massive cash reserves to invest in the future, only to have his message rebuffed Tuesday by the president of Canada’s largest business lobby.

Flaherty told a conference attended by some of the country’s most influential business leaders that the government has done its part to create conditions for growth and job creation.

John Manley, the former Liberal finance minister who now heads the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, was in the crowd and didn’t quite care for what he heard.

Rather than sit on corporate profits, Manley said his members — among Canada’s largest 150 firms — are getting ready to make big investments in the next three years.

“In fact, the anticipated spending on capital investment in Canada from our members alone exceeds all of the federal and provincial stimulus spending during the last downturn,” he said.

“That’s pretty considerable and I think it’s going to pay off in terms of jobs and economic opportunity going forward.”

The finance minister’s comments came at the conclusion of a two-day conference on Asia and China.

Flaherty in essence was repeating sentiments he and Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney have expressed before. The bank governor drew some push-back recently when he upped the ante by accusing firms of sitting on “dead money” rather than putting it to use to grow their firms, or return to investors.

In his speech, the minister conceded that business investment had picked up of late, but “more needs to be done,” he told the audience.

He noted that government had done its part, slashing corporate taxes, eliminating tariffs, introducing monetary inducements to encourage the purchase of new technologies, reducing red tape and concluding some 20 free trade and investment protection agreements around the world.

“The government cannot do this alone,” he said. “Private sector business investment must also help lay the foundation for a sustained, longer-run expansion of Canada’s economy and jobs growth.”

Coincidentally, in an unrelated release, KPMG released it latest annual study on tax competitiveness Tuesday, showing Canada now has the second lowest corporate taxes among 14 major countries measured, and the lowest among major developed countries.

Manley told reporters later the criticism levelled at business has been unfair. Any reticence so far on the part of business leaders is not only understandable but prudent, he said, given that Flaherty himself has warned of major global risks in Europe and the United States.

“So I don’t think he or Mr. Carney should find it surprising that companies would be trying to retain a little cushion of insurance on their balance sheets, when you really don’t know what the next couple of months is going to bring.”

Flaherty did not stay to answer questions from the audience or scrum with reporters after his speech.

The minister told the business community that their future — and Canada’s — lies east, with Asia and particularly China.

With Europe and the United States in a prolonged period of deleveraging, Canada can no longer rely on those traditional trading partners — still Canada’s top two foreign markets — for growth. To succeed in the future, Canadian businesses would do well to target expansion in Asia, particularly China and India, he said.

He got no disagreement from the participants at the “Canada in the Pacific Century” conference, who for the past two days had heard speaker after speaker extolling the benefits of hitching Canada’s economic wagon to Asia.

Manley said there was more the government could do to help firms meet the Pacific challenge. While the Harper Conservatives have signed nine trade agreements since coming to power, none have been with Asian countries, he noted.

He also advised Ottawa to tread carefully in its review of the controversial $15.1-billion takeover of Calgary-based oil producer Nexen Inc. by the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC).

“I think the important thing in my limited experience in dealing with China is that you don’t really want to surprise them. So if there are reservations (about the deal) it would have been good to have telegraphed them well in advance,” he said.

Industry Canada is expected to issue its decision on whether the decision can go ahead, and under what conditions, in November.

For the future, Manley said the government must signal, in public or private, the parameters for investing in Canada’s resource sector, particularly the oilsands.

But a China expert from the University of Alberta said rejecting the deal now might undermine years of outreach to China by the government. Wenran Jiang of the university’s China Institute said Canada will have to get used to investments from the nominally communist country, particularly if Canada wants to expand its reach into the world’s fastest growing market.

“We don’t have to treat China as a friend, but we should treat them as a business partner,” he said.