Stephane Dion outlines economy and the environment

Toronto, Canada (MIKE OLIVEIRA - CP) - Liberal Leader Stephane Dion chose an audience of Toronto business leaders Tuesday to audition the highlights of his federal election platform and spotlight the economy, the environment, and social justice as the party’s priorities.

In his first major speech as Liberal leader, Dion said a prosperous economy and a healthy environment go hand in hand, and if Canadian businesses are innovative, the country can be at the forefront of profitable green technologies.

“Countries that embrace the environment as a core priority will lead the global economy in the 21st century,” Dion told a breakfast crowd from the Economic Club of Toronto and Toronto Board of Trade.

“Their companies will become highly profitable by selling those solutions to the world. They will be shielded from the inevitably rising cost of energy by their strong commitment to energy efficiency. Their populations will have both higher incomes and a higher quality of life. I want Canada to be one of those countries.”

His speech was clearly aimed at wooing the city’s business community, glossing over social justice issues and focusing instead on how the Liberals would help corporate Canada thrive.

Dion promised innovation policies to help Canadian companies succeed on the world’s stage, and highlighted Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM) of Waterloo, Ont., inventor of the wildly successful BlackBerry, as an example of what Canada can produce.

“Canadians are proud that the BlackBerry, used throughout the world, is a Canadian invention. Yet, if Canada is to prosper, we need many BlackBerry-style inventions across the country, produced by innovative Canadians in large or small companies,” he said.

Businesses should especially target innovation in green-based industries, like clean renewable energy, clean fossil fuel technologies, and energy recovery technologies like oil sands and fuel cells, he said.

“If we can make Fort McMurray a centre for sustainable development, we will be able to do it everywhere in the world.”

A report Tuesday suggested the Conservative government would soon be making a series of environment-themed announcements that could include Liberal policies scrapped after Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office.

“I think the prime minister saw the light, maybe because of polls,” Dion said of the report.

“He said in the interviews he did at the end of the year that Canadians care about the environment (only) because the economy is strong. He doesn’t get it. Canadians care about the environment because they care, they care about the future of the planet and they understand, I think more and more, the link between the environment and the economy.”

Dion received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech but Jim Fisher, a vice dean and professor of leadership at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, gave him failing marks for his message.

“For some guy in government to tell me to target innovation in green-based industries because it’s going to be an emerging market, (the reaction) is like, ‘Oh good, as if I didn’t know that,”’ Fisher said.

“As if there isn’t no end of venture capitalists and private funders and angel investors and entrepreneurs already trying to do that.”

A better approach, said Fisher, would be to tell the business community exactly how they’ll get help from the government to succeed.

Glen Stone, public affairs manager for the Toronto Board of Trade, was not critical of the speech but did say the business crowd can be skeptical of politicians’ promises if there’s no substance behind them.

“It’s always welcome to hear statements of principle that you agree with, so when you hear someone talking about the importance of a strong economy to sustain a strong nation, any businessperson can understand that and agree with that,” Stone said.

“It’s when you get down to the specifics of how you will create and sustain that strong economy that people are looking for more specific answers as to exactly what taxes will be reduced, what regulations will be amended or eliminated, or what investments will be made to create a more competitive business climate.”

Dion also said in his speech that if elected prime minister, he would re-establish Canada’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol and look ahead to future solutions in a post-Kyoto world.

He also said he intends to follow the legacies of the Chretien-Martin governments with balanced budgets, reduction of the federal debt and competitive taxes.

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