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Can Canada capitalise on its Olympics achievement?

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Canada has an image problem. It’s too good. The country is too beautiful, the people too polite and friendly, the society too cohesive, the institutions too effective. It’s a nice problem to have!

I witnessed this as a guest of the Canadian government, when I presented them with my suggested ‘postcard’ for Canada — a lovely vista of snow capped mountains, with the catchy slogan, “May the moose be with you.” It all went down well in the commercial cities of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, but boy did I upset them in the federal capital, Ottawa. The civil servants there told me: “We’re trying to get away from the stereotypes of Moose, Mounties and Mountains. We want them to know that Canada is edgy, sophisticated, economically diverse, etc.”

I replied: “You know, people think Aussies are kangaroos, koalas and beaches but it’s good to have a brand. Austria has to give out t-shirts saying ‘No we don’t have kangaroos, just to differentiate themselves from Australia’.”

Furthermore, Brand Canada is pretty successful. According to the global expert on country brands, Simon Anholt, Canada regularly is top of the charts and often pips Australia on a number of scores. And as Anholt points out, a minority of the world’s population will never get to see Canada, or Australia, but when a country hosts the Olympics, everyone with a TV set will be thinking about the host country. So like it not, everyone will be thinking and talking about Canada right now, as Vancouver hosts the Winter Olympics, just like Australia was ‘on display’ during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

So is Canada maximising its opportunity by hosting the games?

We saw a wonderful opening ceremony (orchestrated by an Australian, David Atkins, of course) but with great Canadian identities from k.d.lang to Wayne Gretzky.

Canadian diversity was celebrated with the first nations and aboriginal communities, the bilingual society and the importance of immigration and multiculturalism. The ‘slam poet’ was also quite a performance on what it means to be Canadian. How Canada and the host province of British Columbia (BC) leverage the games in terms of trade and investment will also matter.

Based on Australia’s Business Club Australia (BCA) model from the Sydney Olympics 2000, the BC Commerce Centre has been set up to help match-make business visitors with local companies. It was former Vancouver Mayor and BC Premier Mike Harcourt who first saw Vancouver’s potential as an Asia-Pacific city and hosting the Olympics will be a further boost to Vancouver’s regional and global status.

Of course, at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the global economy was in good shape while in Vancouver in 2010, the world is recovering from a major global financial crisis (GFC).

Are current economic conditions helpful at the moment to Canada?

According to the Governor of the Bank of Canada Mark Carney: “After a brutal economic winter, spring is within sight.” Unlike Australia, Canada experienced a short sharp recession, with a 15 percent drop in industrial production. However, for the most part, Canada got off lightly compared to the USA, Europe and Japan.

Canada, like Australia, faces some major post-GFC issues. According to Carney, Canada’s poor productivity performance, if continued over the decade, would cause a cumulative loss of income of “almost C$30,000 for every Canadian”. But as Australia’s High Commissioner to Canada Justin Brown has pointed out, the post-GFC recovery period is forcing Canadians “to look at new options to underpin growth”.

Brown believes that Australia has an important role to play in the Canadian economy and that “this provides a new and potentially productive environment in which to expand Australia-Canada economic linkages, particularly in areas where growth is robust and complementarities are strongest, such as investment and trade in services (including the two-way movement of skilled personnel in sectors such as mining, energy, viticulture, and education).”

Australia is also taking advantage of the Vancouver Olympics to strut its stuff on the world stage.

According to Kevin Lamb of Austrade Vancouver, “We have almost as many Australian companies here as we have athletes. There’s the usual big names, such as BHP Billiton, Macquarie Capital, Rio Tinto Alcan and Worley Parsons, who all have a major presence in Canada.”

And beyond the Olympics too, Stefan Trofimovs, Australia’s Toronto-based Senior Trade Commissioner for Canada, will be spearheading major missions in Canada, “in areas as diverse as mining, oil and gas, education, environmental industries (renewable, energy, water management) and financial services. We’ll also be taking advantage of Canada’s hosting of the G8 and G20 Summits in June to encourage Australian companies to do business here and Canadians to invest in Australia.”

The strategy of using sporting events, like the Vancouver Olympics, to leverage business opportunities for Australia has a proven track record. It’s the ‘power of schmooze’ in action. In fact, since the BCA programme was established in 2000 at Sydney, it has delivered over A$1.7 billion in exports and investment.

Vancouver is the first time that Australia’s BCA will be up and running at a winter sports event, and foundations will be built for London 2012 and Rio 2016, and also the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi later this year.

But now it’s Canada’s turn to shine. While Australia may well have kangaroos, the outback and larrikins and Canada does have moose, mountains, Mounties and very, very nice people, overall, it’s a pretty good way for both places to be.

The Vancouver Olympics should bear this out trade-wise for Canada, just like the Sydney Olympics did for Australia.

Fast facts:

Australia and Canada:

  • Australian exports to Canada: A$1,519 million (2008-09, merchandise)
  • Australian imports from Canada: $2,438 m (2008-09, merchandise)
  • Two-way trade (exports + imports): $3947m (2008-09, merchandise)
  • Australian services exports to Canada: $815 m
  • Australian services imports from Canada: $913m
  • Australian investment in Canada: $38,848 (Direct – $27,910)
  • Canadian investment in Australia: $18,158m (Direct – $10,177)
  • Number of Australian exporters selling to Canada: 2,390 (2007-08 goods only)

The Business of Sport

  • Trade and investment deals generated by Business Club Australia (BCA) since Sydney 2000 – A$ 1.7 billion
  • Number of Australian athletes competing in Vancouver 2010: 39
  • Number of Australian companies in Canada for Vancouver 2010: 30
  • Industry events organised by Austrade Canada – Mining, oil and gas, education, wine, renewable energy.

Tim Harcourt is Chief Economist of the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) and the author of The Airport Economist.

Photo: Tim in Sydney

  • Australian companies at Vancouver 2010 include – Macquarie Capital, Rio Tinto Alcan, Worley Parsons.
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