Ed Fast Pushing Asia-Canada Trade LinksTuesday, October 15, 2013 > 09:58:35
(Regina Leader Post – Matthew Fisher)
When Ottawa rolls out a refreshed global strategy later this year there will be a greater emphasis on the role that small-and medium-sized businesses can play in Canada's export drive.
International Trade Minister Ed Fast made that commitment during an interview after the conclusion of last week's summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in this Indonesian beach resort.
Fast is among the lesser known ministers in Stephen Harper's cabinet. One reason is that the self-effacing Mennonite member of Parliament for Abbotsford, B.C., never gets in trouble. Another may be that he spends less time in Ottawa than any other minister. He devotes at least four months a year to selling the Canadian brand overseas and another four months a year to his riding.
Unlike some of the better known ministers, who tend to be abrasive and oversee departments that harbour decidedly mixed feelings about them, Fast Eddie, as he has been called since he was a kid, has quietly established a solid relationship with the mandarins and diplomats who work for him as well as with the Canadian business community abroad.
The move that the 58-year old lawyer has in the works to encourage smaller firms to seek international opportunities is designed to address a Canadian weakness that I have often wondered about. Even in the most unlikely places, such as violence-torn Yemen, the Siberian taiga or the jungle towns of Sumatra, enterprising businessmen from countries such as Sweden, Germany and Japan tend to pop up.
Whether they are selling ball bearings, water-purification systems or high-tech equipment, these salesmen from companies with as few as a couple of dozen employees come because there is money to be made. There are far fewer intrepid salesmen representing smaller Canadian firms combing the global boondocks for business. Most of the Canadian companies aggressively pursuing contracts overseas today are well established giants including Bombardier, CAE and SNC-Lavalin, as well as mining and energy companies, the big banks and insurance companies.
"The challenge is that Canadians tend to be very cautious and it takes a little bit of a push to get them to step over the line to look at opportunities outside of Canada and outside of North America, for that matter," Fast said. "There is still a lot of education that needs to take place among our SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in terms of their awareness of the trade opportunities that are all around the world."
A survey published by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada earlier this year underlined why fighting Canadian complacency about trade involves more than convincing smaller Canadian companies to compete internationally. Canadians' enthusiasm for trade and trade deals with Asia was found to be waning, despite Stephen Harper's assertion that Canada's future prosperity depends upon a much bigger trade relationship with the Orient – a top priority of his government.
Many other countries have the same notion, of course. Sounding very much like Canada's prime minister, Australia's new leader, Tony Abbott, told the Chinese representatives in Bali that "Australia was open for business." A few days ago in Beijing, British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said that no western country was more keen to seek investment from China than his was.
Something that has so far proven elusive, and has been the subject of considerable criticism, is that Canada has yet to sign a trade agreement with any Asian nation. That logjam should finally be broken as both Canada and South Korea publicly agreed in Bali to sign a deal by the end of the year. Similar negotiations are also underway with Japan and, although still at a fairly early stage, with Thailand.
Of potentially far greater economic significance for Canada is the trans-Pacific Partnership. The U.S. had hoped that this 12-nation accord would be ratified by the end of the year, but with Washington paralyzed by the budget showdown between the Congress and the White House, the timeline for concluding those talks has slipped into next year.
"It is comprehensive and it is complicated because you have 12 partners that are at different levels of economic maturity, which makes it challenging to synthesize an agreement," Fast said in explaining why it was taking so long to complete what he called an ambitious "21st century" trade deal that would significantly liberalize trade.
While Canadians may be disturbingly ambivalent about the importance of doing more business with Asia, Canada's exports to China for the first half of this year were worth $10 billion – 7.8% greater than during the same period last year – while 84,000 students from China attended school in Canada.
Those big numbers explain why Fast left Bali to fly the Canadian flag in Singapore and China. He will be back in Southeast Asia again in December.