This is part two of a three-part series that discusses Canadian citizens’ dissatisfaction with politics as usual. Part one dealt with the importance of refocusing on public services in the midst of government dysfunction. Part two will focus on reforming intergovernmental relations to become more responsive to citizens.
Canadians are disengaged from political processes because Canada’s political institutions and leadership are no longer accountable and responsive to their needs. This arises as much from the marked trend toward governing by executive decree (while sidestepping transparent legislative oversight) as from the dysfunctional and opaque terms of relations between various levels of government. In order to address the resulting confusion and alienation that citizens feel, one step we should consider is the establishment of a Canadian council of governments designed to facilitate the constructive and open collaboration of all levels of government — federal, provincial/territorial, municipal, and Aboriginal. (A similar council was established in Australia in 1992.)
The proposed council would be chaired by the prime minister, and would comprise provincial premiers, territorial leaders, the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and Aboriginal leadership. The council’s role would be to initiate, develop, and monitor the implementation of policy reforms that are of national significance, and that require coherent co-operative action by Canadian governments.
There are many areas in which this co-ordinated action, and the shared efforts of multiple jurisdictions, would benefit Canadians: infrastructure, public transit, environmental protection and climate change, energy, health, education and training, housing, Aboriginal concerns, early childhood development, economic union and labour mobility, immigration, and disaster planning. But the focus of the council’s deliberations and ensuing intergovernmental agreements would be those issues that require a coherent national response, or major initiatives of one or more governments that impact other jurisdictions. With respect to the latter, consider the federal government’s abolition of the Canada Wheat Board, its foreign-investment decisions, its goals for prisons expansion, etc. With respect to the former, the council could finally promote serious progress on a wide range of matters of national concern: establishing a national carbon price to underpin serious efforts to address climate change; creating an infrastructure financing authority to facilitate raising the billions of dollars required to upgrade our crumbling infrastructure; restructuring equalization payments to more effectively address the disparity of public services across the country; reforming our health-care system to establish more comparable services from province to province; and co-ordinating reforms to the essential elements of Canada’s social-security system, from pensions to Employment Insurance.
Furthermore, the proposed council could provide an invaluable forum to coordinate intergovernmental discussions of issues arising during negotiations of international treaties and other agreements (such as the Canada-EU Economic and Trade Agreement), allowing other levels of government to contribute constructively on matters of interest to them — from supply management to government procurement. The council could also monitor levels of national, provincial, and municipal debt to prevent debt crises from emerging in Canada as they recently have in Europe.
It would be a mistake to assess the value of such a council through the worn-out lens of federal-provincial conflicts of the past, fought over the degree of centralization of power. The council would have no impact on the division of legislative powers in Canada, and would require no constitutional reform. The council’s role would simply be to facilitate co-ordinated and collaborative action across governments, encouraging consensus in decision-making processes.
With transparent operations conducted by a well-structured secretariat, and regular meetings (perhaps on a quarterly basis), the proposed council would allow a positive dynamic to emerge. The focus on intergovernmental collaboration would bring more direction and coherence to governance, restoring government transparency and accountability to Canadians. Council meetings would provide Canadians with a prominent point of engagement between elections, in which they could articulate public concerns, protest inaction, and engage constructively in the political process.
This council would undoubtedly be a more effective forum than the existing ad hoc First Ministers conferences (which are only held when it is convenient for the federal government), and the dysfunctional Council of the Federation (which includes only provincial/territorial governments). Unlike these existing structures, the proposed council would fundamentally change the political dynamic in Canada for the better by addressing a primary source of public frustration and cynicism with the current system: the inability of different levels of government and their leadership to come together constructively, and to collaborate on measures that serve the long-term concerns and interests of all Canadians.
In part three of this series, I will discuss the changing role political parties and civil society must play if we are to truly solve the democratic deficit in this country.