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December 2 2020

Maryscott Greenwood: What the US election 2020 means for Calgary and Alberta

Maryscott “Scotty” Greenwood is the chief executive officer of the Canadian American Business Council. A former American diplomat to Canada and a frequent media commentator and public speaker, Scotty serves as a business and public policy advocate, as well as a communications expert and political strategist to Fortune 500 companies, trade associations, and nonprofit organizations. Scotty is also the managing director and founding partner of Crestview Strategy U.S. and she serves on public corporate and private philanthropic boards of directors.

In November, Scotty sat down with us (virtually) to discuss what the results of the recent U.S. election mean for Calgary, Alberta, and Canadian business.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What are the challenges and opportunities of a Biden administration for Calgary, Alberta, and Canada? 

Opportunities

Let’s start with the opportunities: a return to decorum, to a relationship of mutual respect where Canada does not have the imminent threat of steel and aluminum tariffs, for example, hanging over its head at any given minute. That’s positive. At the same time, the Biden Administration’s leadership on the COVID-19 pandemic will hopefully lead to getting this crisis under control and that will help facilitate more travel across the border. In fact, the pilot project that the Calgary airport is leading on rapid COVID-19 testing is not only a model for the world, but exactly the sort of creativity and thinking that we have come to expect from Alberta, and that will contribute to joint Canada-U.S. coordination on the pandemic.

I also expect that we’ll see a further return to the Regulatory Cooperation Council. This was a process that began under the Obama Administration, and though it has continued, has waned under President Trump. The purpose of this Council is to facilitate regulatory cooperation, which will be beneficial as Canada and the United States both look to rebuild our economies as we emerge from the pandemic.

In addition to the pandemic, a Biden Administration will also present considerable opportunities for Alberta and Canada in terms of the President-elect’s ambitious environmental policy agenda. Though his agenda will be moderated by what is likely a Republican Senate, there are all sorts of opportunities for businesses in terms of carbon capture and utilization – where Alberta companies are leading the way – and other types of innovation for decarbonization.

These benefits, I should point out, disproportionately benefit and impact small businesses. Facilitating greater travel makes it possible to resume customer and supplier relationships, and regulatory cohesion between Canada and the U.S. positively impact companies’ bottom lines.

Challenges

The challenges that Biden brings for Alberta are about navigating the policy landscape in the U.S. and competing for attention from both the incoming Congress and the Administration. To that end, contending with Buy American provisions and difficulties surrounding Keystone-XL will remain important.

A more specific challenge, particularly for small businesses, will likely be competing for global talent. The U.S. will be open again to skilled workers, particularly immigrants and international students. That will impact Calgary for sure, as Canada’s relative advantage that it held in this regard during the Trump administration will be lost.

What opportunities for attracting investment to Alberta would a Biden administration create or support?

A big opportunity for Alberta is in critical minerals and rare earths, which exist throughout the world and are used in everything – from iPhones, to electric vehicle batteries, to precision-guided missiles – but are only processed in a few places in the world, with the bulk of that production occurring in China. From a strategic and geopolitical perspective, that’s a problem for North America. Alberta, on this front, could be a very important player in terms of development and processing. You have the engineering expertise already, you have the regulatory system in place to responsibly develop these resources, and the large U.S. market to the south that needs them.

If Alberta takes up this opportunity with the nimbleness with which it looked to work on COVID-19 rapid testing at airports, it could provide work for generations to come.

Another strategic advantage that comes to mind is in the agri-food sector. Alberta knows how to feed people sustainably and efficiently, and what we’ve seen in this pandemic is that there are essential things that need to continue even when the rest of commerce slows to a halt – putting food on the table is one of those areas. To that end, Alberta seems ready for collaboration on future-leaning ag-tech policy and in the sector generally.

The results of the election suggest a Biden presidency, a House controlled by the Democrats, and a Senate that may be controlled by the Republicans – what does this mean for policy development, particularly as it relates to Canada-US relations?

It’s a recipe for gridlock, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

A key difference between the Canadian and American political systems is that the American system is designed to be inefficient. At its inception, it was a reaction to excessive government authority. This is in stark comparison to the strength of the fused executive in a majoritarian parliament or legislature. A Premier or Prime Minister sits in the legislature, and so it’s relatively easy to get their agenda enacted if they have a majority.

In the U.S. system, particularly when there is a divided government, where one party controls either the House of Representatives and/or Senate, and the other controls the Presidency, it is a monumental task to get legislation passed or appointees confirmed.

For Canada-U.S. relations, that means we will see stability. There won’t be a pendulum swing in terms of wild changes in fiscal policy or business climate. Rather, there will be incremental changes where there is agreement, depending on how the January runoff elections in Georgia play out, essentially between President-elect Biden and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That’s how things will get done.

It will also mean a real focus on economic recovery. Biden was Vice President in 2009, so he understands economic catastrophe, and a bipartisan focus on this bodes well for Canada, Alberta, and Calgary in particular.

What does the uncertainty between now and Inauguration Day mean for Canadian, and specifically Alberta, businesses?

I actually don’t worry about the uncertainty at all, and neither should Canadian businesses.

Notwithstanding what President Trump tweets or his administration does, the transition will be peaceful, organized, orderly, and it will occur. The rule of law and consensus governing posture of the U.S. means that we will not be bullied into changing the outcome of a democratic election. That doesn’t happen in America, and it will not happen this time.

The Biden team is eminently professional, they know how to govern, they are very serious, and know what to expect.

For Trump, he now has little power in terms of public policy. Executive Orders at this point would be reversed in January when President-elect Biden takes office. The only real effective change he could make, and that would require Congress to go along with him, would be in the way of judicial appointments such as the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett that occurred before the election.

Given the longstanding Canada-U.S. relationship, what do the results of the election mean for Canada-US relations and U.S. foreign policy? What can the Canadian and Alberta governments do to work with the new administration?

The election bodes well for the U.S. returning to a scenario where we trust, value, and collaborate with our allies.

Joe Biden has experience on the world stage, and he believes, as does Canada, in multilateral institutions. You won’t have these meetings where world leaders are wondering what the intentions of the U.S. are. For Canada and the world, that means more direct engagement with the Biden administration and the U.S., and less time and energy spent on creative solutions for engagement under the Trump administration.

While this means that the temperature in terms of rhetoric will be reduced, as I mentioned earlier, it still means that Canada will need to hold a full-court press to maintain attention in the United States.

What advice do you have for both Canadian and Alberta businesses on navigating this change?

It’s important, I think, to pay careful attention to the details of policy announcements as they come forward.

In doing so, stay engaged with organizations like the Calgary Chamber and other efforts such as the North American Rebound campaign. It’s an effort that we, at the Canadian American Business Council, started to say, “whatever we do, we’re better together;” to not compete against each other as we emerge from this pandemic. We need to lean into solutions like that for Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.