Great Nations Cannot Be Sustained By Sports Events And Military Operations Alone (January 2011)

2010 ended with the proverbial good news and bad news. Thanks mainly to our stable banking system, natural resources, and resilient population, Canada appears to have weathered the recession better than most. Sadly, the federal government’s short-term and often politically-inspired stimulus expenditures have burdened Canadians with a deficit of over $50 billion that now severely constrains our ability to make a robust recovery with long-term investments in infrastructure, education, the environment, health care, or science and technology.

In commenting on the past year and the year ahead in national politics, it is all too easy to focus on the inertia on Parliament Hill.  Or on how Canada continued to lose influence and credibility in global forums, losing our bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council and spending an outrageous amount hosting the G20/G8 summits.

The real concern in national politics is the shocking extent to which our national government no longer governs for all Canadians as citizens of one great country, and refuses to address matters of national interest. Its authoritarian style of governance is seriously out of sync with our 21st-century world of greater openness and transparency – the networked age of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and WikiLeaks – a world that requires strong coherent national government in all areas that engage our common concerns and aspiration as Canadians.

First, the obvious examples: from the lengthy prorogation of Parliament at the beginning of the year to the use of omnibus budget legislation to force through initiatives without debate, and from continuing to pack the undemocratic Senate with cronies who then summarily defeated climate-change legislation passed by the House of Commons to the unbelievably disrespectful treatment of our veterans over their pensions, it is clear that the national government has turned its back on Canadians and Parliament.

Increasingly the national government not only bypasses Canadians and Parliament but also prefers playing ATM to the provinces and territories in unaccountable intergovernmental forums. Provincial governments, not all Canadians, now define the boundaries on national action on everything from Canada Pension Plan reform to national securities regulation to clean energy and health care. The resulting patchwork of policies and initiatives leads to greater inequities and uneven opportunities across the country and further undermines social cohesion and our coherence in the global arena.

Next, the less reported examples of the national government completely missing in action: the government sat out the important debate over Quebec’s attempt to establish a monopoly over the transmission of hydroelectricity in Eastern Canada. Quebec’s attempt to take advantage of money-strapped New Brunswick and to further stymie Newfoundland’s attempts to expand markets for transmitting electricity from Labrador hydro developments, both to other parts of Canada and to the United States, was vociferously protested by Atlantic Canadians. Although the deal was thankfully abandoned – eventually leading to the defeat of the New Brunswick government – the silence at the national level was deafening. The government ignored the national interest in ensuring all Canadians have access to adequate sources of clean energy and abdicated its responsibility for inter-provincial equity in the transmission of electricity across provincial boundaries.

Yet most Canadians would agree that national government intermediation is far preferable to an exhausting divisive inter-provincial battle. Great nations are ones with strong national economies and secure sources of clean energy, with a national government able to establish the necessary national frameworks and initiatives.

Strong national leadership in energy and environmental matters does not mean creating new intrusions into provincial jurisdiction or challenging the provinces’ control over natural resources within their boundaries. It means a clear articulation of what the federal government will do, within its already established jurisdiction and competency, to set Canada on a more credible and cost-effective clean-energy path.

Indeed, a more attentive federal government would notice that leaders in energy-intensive industries are on much the same page as the environment community – and most Canadians – in realizing the value of national standards, even an economy-wide price on carbon, to ameliorate the confusion of federal and provincial initiatives and allow for more constructive long-term planning of clean energy development.

The Quebec-New Brunswick hydro debacle also exposed the absurdity of Canada’s convoluted equalization program and system of federal-provincial transfers – key tools of the national government for pursuing equity and equal opportunity for all Canadians. The prospect of a province receiving billions of dollars in equalization while issuing billions in debt through its hydro utility in order to acquire a hydro-electric transmission empire was too much to take. Yet despite ongoing protests from provinces such as Alberta and Ontario, the government refuses to take action.

Canadians are not indifferent to this void in national leadership in Ottawa and the decline of national political parties as vehicles of public participation; witness the effective use of social media to organize significant opposition to the prorogation of Parliament. But more often than not we tune out the irrelevant melodramas initiated by our national politicians, who in 2010 were only once able to come to a common agreement – a motion to condemn Maclean’s magazine for apparently insulting in some way the “Quebec nation.”

As we face a likely election in 2011, Canadians must stand up and protest this drift into irrelevance.  We must not allow the government to dumb down the national agenda to a sterile debate over limiting government in an age of austerity, or to reduce the national interest to the lowest common denominator of provincial interests. Good governance in the 21st century is not about the size of government but about providing responsible ethical leadership and establishing national priorities and standards for all Canadians across the full spectrum of issues that demand national attention.

For example:

Make greater use of the tools of social media to demand greater accountability and responsiveness from the national government. Initiate Facebook and Twitter campaigns to protest criminal-justice strategies that involve simply building more prisons. Demand meaningful wage security and EI reform, insist on more aggressive action to eliminate toxins in our environment, require clearer steps to promote net neutrality. Condemn national initiatives aimed only at narrow partisan advantage and pandering to parochialism.

Demand open and civil debate to establish a credible national climate-change initiative and clean-energy strategy that will make Canada a model of green energy production to the world.

Support the holding of a national referendum on proposals to reform the Senate, and the establishment of an arms-length national commission to ensure more equitable, efficient, and comprehensible fiscal arrangements with the provinces and territories.

Most importantly, insist on building a fair and innovative nation, with meaningful national action to provide the fundamentals of Canadian citizenship to all Canadians regardless of residence, and reduce the growing inequality of opportunity. No Canadian should be condemned to second-class citizenship or forced to move to another province for such essentials as clean air and water, excellent public education, or health care.

We need to demand much more from our nation’s representatives and ensure that 2011 does not become yet another year of mediocrity and shrinking national ambitions. We must insist on bold and visionary national leadership to rally anxious and disillusioned Canadians, remind us that we are stronger when we act together, and restore coherent national government at home and a clear Canadian voice on the world stage.