Canada’s new Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Francois-Philippe Champagne was hired three months ago for his skills as a consummate political salesman, delegates attending the annual conference of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies — Canada (ACEC) were told recently.
And in his afternoon keynote speech at the Ottawa gathering on Oct. 22 he showed enough deftness on policy files to earn praise from ACEC president and CEO John Gamble.
Champagne, representing the riding of Saint-Maurice — Champlain, was formerly the Liberals’ minister of international trade where, he said, he acted as chief pitchman for Canada abroad.
“I used to get calls from investors who told me they desperately want to invest in Canada,” he said, discussing the Canada Infrastructure Bank.
“I used to be pitching Canada. And they would say in all these offices, ‘minister, you don’t need to pitch, just give us the projects.’
“I think we are going to see enormous interest.”
Champagne, 48, a lawyer who was first elected to the House of Commons in 2015, previously worked for the data firm ABB Group and the energy company AMEC and served on the boards of the Incheon Bridge Corporation of South Korea and the Center of Excellence in Energy.
“The prime minister values his political skills very much,” commented Joel-Denis Bellavance, Ottawa Bureau chief of La Presse, during a politics roundtable at the ACEC conference. He called Champagne Trudeau’s “chief marketing officer.”
“He was hired for political reasons, to travel the country the year before the next election to sell the government’s infrastructure plan.”
One of his first decisions, Champagne told the ACEC delegates, was to plan to modify the project approvals process to better reflect the realities of the construction season.
When it comes to project approvals, somehow we have lost the trust of Canadians
— Francois-Philippe Champagne
Minister of Infrastructure and Communities
“We need to adapt our intake, review and approvals process with the construction season,” he said. “It sounds like common sense but in government terms it is more like revolution.
“There is no way that I would be happy if I gave you an answer on a project in May when in many provinces construction season has already started.”
Asked by a delegate how the federal government aims to address resource project approvals, referring to the Federal Court of Appeal decision to rescind approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline (TMX), Champagne said Canadians are no longer confident the federal government and its agencies are working in their interests.
“When it comes to project approvals, somehow we have lost the trust of Canadians,” he said.
“So we are rebuilding trust. If you look at the TMX, we live in a state of the rule of law. The Court of Appeal has told us the way forward. We thought we had done it, but the court said you should have done better, so that’s what we’re going to do, and at the same time building social acceptance because there is no doubt we have to get our resources to market.
“We need to explain these things to citizens.”
As he travels the country, Champagne said he tells project proponents to “think big” and “think smart.”
One example of the latter is the transit system in the cold-weather city of Gothenburg, Sweden. To make transit more attractive, vehicles travel right inside libraries and cafeterias for passenger pick-up.
One Quebec project will follow that lead, he said.
“This is not rocket science,” said Champagne.
“This is the type of thing I will be talking about across Canada. You are going to be hearing a lot about the Gothenburg example.”
Champagne said his ministry will continue to focus on trade corridors to get products to market, and that the new USMCA trade deal signed with Mexico and the U.S. will continue to give Canadians the preferred market access that is essential for future prosperity.
Another delegate asked about a priority advocacy issue for the ACEC, qualifications-based selection in project procurement.
“We have spoken to Scott Brison, president of the treasury board, about a different way of procuring,” he said. “We have started some initiatives, procuring with respect to outcomes as opposed to these very big RFPs which in many fields are not the smart way to procure these days.”