For someone like me whose job is to promote good public policies, the intellectual mushiness of most mainstream politicians is a major source of irritation.
Too often politicians will only give politically correct answers and indulge in vague and often meaningless rhetoric so as to avoid displeasing anyone. It's hard to discuss policy solutions when what you have are "catch-all" political parties trying to appeal to everybody, with only some differences in emphasis to distinguish them.
More importantly, this attitude almost inevitably leads to bad public policies.
Small but highly organized and vocal interest groups can easily scare governments and scuttle whatever new economic development project is being proposed. Since opponents of a project will more readily get organized and wage a public campaign than its proponents, paralysis is often the safer position to be in when you are the government. These groups can become so powerful as to threaten the rights and livelihood of everybody else.
At one point, somebody has to stand up and say: The buck stops here!
That's why I was so pleased last week to read the open letter penned by Canada's natural resources minister, Joe Oliver, to defend Canadians' rights to develop our energy resources and diversify our energy markets.
Oliver did not mince his words. He denounced those "environmental and other radical groups [whose] goal is to stop any major project, no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth." He also ridiculed those "jet-setting celebrities with some of the largest personal carbon footprints in the world [who come] to lecture Canadians not to develop our natural resources."
No wishy-washiness here – that's a clear enough position.
The minister's intervention comes as those groups are seeking to delay and block the project to build the Northern Gateway pipeline, by stacking public hearings with opponents. The pipeline would allow Canada to sell oil to China and other Asian markets. Last year, similar groups managed to convince the Barack Obama administration to postpone a decision to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project, which would have carried Albertan oil to Texas.
Developing Alberta's oilsands, and selling that oil, is of crucial importance for Canada's economy. Despite what anti-growth environmental groups are saying, oil is not about to be phased out as a major source of energy to fuel our economy.
According to the International Energy Agency, even if most governments in the world enact measures aiming to reduce energy consumption and encourage renewable energy, demand for oil will still increase between now and 2035. Indeed, in that year, oil will still be the biggest primary energy source, although its share will have decreased to 28% of the total, from 33% in 2008. For at least another generation, the world can simply not get around the need for more oil, unless we are willing to accept a drastic reduction in our standard of living.
You cannot take decisions in the general public interest while pleasing every single group. I would encourage politicians from all parties to express their opinions as forcefully as the minister has just done. That would help clear up the fog that surrounds too many important debates in our society.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute.