Canada’s trade potential suffers from whack-a-mole approach to infrastructure development

Cargo ship at port near Victoria, B.C. Credit: B. Martin, 2023, RealAgriculture

Trade between countries is so much more than railways and ports, but if it can’t move, it can’t be sold.

Canada is an export nation, but currently ranks just ahead of Azerbaijan according to the World Economic Forum’s rankings on infrastructure, transport infrastructure and trade infrastructure, says Carlo Dade, vice-president of Canada West Foundation.

A decades-long decline in logistics performance and global perception of performance is not one flood, it’s not one strike at a port, or a bad winter. “It’s symptom of a systemic problem,” Dade says.

Dade says that Canada’s trade infrastructure problem will require much bigger-picture and longer-term planning and investment than seen in the last decade.

Canada’s national, integrated supply chains require better planned projects, Dade says, as changes to one, such as rail movement, has rippling effects in other industries and logistics corridors. .”If you look at trying to whack-a-mole and just put one problem down [at a time], you can inadvertently create problems in the other parts of the system,” he says.

Governments have a role to play in leading change, however trade and trade infrastructure is one that is highly privately run, versus other sectors such as health care and education.

But while private industry needs to be involved in the strategic planning and investment process, the government has a role to play, too. But how much investment is enough?

The Organization of Economic Cooperation Development (OECD) publishes data on what countries spend on inland transportation infrastructure as a percent of that country’s GDP and Canada ranks below the OECD average, Dade says. “I think we spend a quarter of what Australia spends, and we spend less than the Americans. What that exact figure is, you’re not going to know till you have long term national planning,” he says.

There’s no clear answer as to how we got in this mess either. As Dade sees it, a continued shift in government to focus on the photo-op of a sod turning ceremony instead of long-term projects that may come to fruition years later when some other party is in power has contributed to the problem, for sure. The driving force behind that, however, is voters — not just politicians.

“We reward politicians and we reward the system that gives us something bright new and shiny, where we’re whacking the mole that just popped up. There is no reward for taking a longer term view. There is no reward for a politician to invest in long-term planning for a project where the opposition will cut the ribbon,” Dade says.

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