By Stefania Bartucci

Colonel Mustard

For those who enjoy a good mystery, give Budget 2012 a read.

I’ve never been a mystery fan myself. I’m always jumping ahead to figure out how it all ends, and in typical fashion I did the same when reading this year’s unremarkable budget. I dug deep in the annexes, I read between the lines, and I discovered…well, not much.

This isn’t to say that the budget doesn’t make some good strides to increase trade, attract investment, and bolster the competitiveness of Canadian businesses. The policies that follow the budget may very well do all of those things to some extent. But when it comes to measures on trade and investment, this budget is so lacking in detail that it is next to impossible to analyze the potential impacts on Canada’s global commercial relationships.

Take labour issues, for example. Canada will experience skilled labour shortages across the country over the next several years, in professions such as engineering, healthcare and construction trades. This trend will have serious implications for productivity and output and thus the capacity of Canadian businesses to compete. Recognizing that some of this labour must come from abroad, the government proposes changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, to better align it with market demand. How, you ask? That remains a mystery.

Equally shrouded in secrecy is the government’s intention to make improvements to the administration of the Investment Canada Act in order to increase the transparency of foreign investment reviews, and thus create a more stable, predictable environment for investors. Remember when the government promised, post-Potash, to take a good, hard look at the processes for foreign investment reviews in Canada? Budget 2012 commits to some sort of change, but it sounds like incremental, under-the-radar modification is what we can expect. Or, is it?

At this point, I would normally put the book down and walk away. All this uncertainty makes me anxious. But any mystery author knows you have to give your audience some tangible hints to keep them hanging on. In Budget 2012, this came in the form of the announcement for the government’s next Global Commerce Strategy. There’s a stated target date (2013), a commitment to consult with Canada’s business community in 2012, and armed with this information, we can finally start to determine some outcomes. No explicit mention of what this next strategy would include, but given the current direction of the government’s trade agenda, it’s safe to expect a greater focus on high-growth markets in Asia and Latin America, not just in the form of new trade and investment protection negotiations, but a re-alignment of the Canadian Trade Commissioner services and diplomatic resources.

Though unlikely to make the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list, Budget 2012 does have the elements of a good mystery: filled with suspense, a few clues along the way, and maybe even a red herring or two.  Hard to say how it will all end, but I suspect it was Colonel Mustard in the Kitchen with the Candlestick.