Lessons From Election 2011 (May 2011)

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Liberal party did not lose the recent federal election; rather, it was missing in action. What has been portrayed, unfairly, as a personal failure of Michael Ignatieff is really the culmination, and logical consequence, of the party’s abandonment, for over two decades now, of the basic vision that underpinned its success in governing Canada for more than a century. This is the vision of energetic national government, to meet the needs and aspirations of the people, and unite the country.

Canadians have for years – under recent Liberal governments as much as Conservative ones – been treated as a mere sideshow in the sport of national politics, anesthetized by the masters of political messaging and spin. The national government is no longer an instrument of the people, governing for all Canadians.

The role of our national government has been reduced to managing relations with the provinces in all the critical areas of national life. It means that the lowest common denominator of a provincial consensus defines the boundaries on national action on everything from Canada Pension Plan reform, to environmental protection, to clean energy, to health care.

National action is all about federal-provincial relations and financial transfers to provinces. And when negotiations in unaccountable federal-provincial forums – to which citizens are uninvited – break down, our government turns to the courts, not the people, to resolve differences from securities regulation to access to reproductive technologies. The same goes for fundamental social controversies, from polygamy to the wearing of the niqab. Too complicated to engage in discussions with the Canadian people. So much easier to bypass us completely.

No national leader or national party currently focuses on their role to speak out for all Canadians and remind us of our reciprocal obligations as citizens of this great country – the kind of commitment and solidarity that transcends provincial boundaries and condemns indifference to the plights of others, whatever our residence.

But when parents of disabled children in Nova Scotia find it necessary to uproot their family in order to access better services in Ontario or Alberta, this is a concern of all Canadians, not just the Nova Scotia government. When residents in New Brunswick face horrendous electricity costs and need help to invest in clean energy options, this is a matter of national concern, not just a dispute between the governments of New Brunswick and Quebec about the transmission of electrical energy from Newfoundland. And when virtually all the mayors of Canadian municipalities raise the alarm about our crumbling physical infrastructure and the pathetic state of public transit, the need is for visionary and energetic national action, not a quick fix through adjusting tax revenue.

In the May 2 election, Canadians came to the polls worn down by the petty partisan politics that paralyzed the last Parliament – the smallest adjustment to national programs or initiatives, whether banning a toxic substance or changing EI or veterans’ pensions, a Herculean task. Too many individuals and families are living too close to the financial edge, with our ability to withstand an unexpected event – from a sudden illness to loss of employment – gravely diminished.

Too many Canadians face greatly reduced expectations and disappointments with respect to their job prospects and ambitions for the future. Too many have lost any sense that the federal government can make a difference in our lives; the appeal of conservativism reflects less a retrenchment of progressive values and much more a crisis of confidence in government’s ability to serve people honestly and efficiently.

With such low expectations and no politicians providing any real answers, we settled for stable mediocrity and a newly constituted NDP opposition, dominated by a collection of accidental MPs replacing the Bloc Québécois, which may be unlikely to understand that national governance is all about the Canadian people and not all about provinces.

To reverse this trend toward national mediocrity and the related decline in our global potential (witness Canada’s image as a dinosaur of climate change on the international stage and loss of a UN Security Council seat to Portugal), Canadians need the voices for bold and visionary national action to speak up. We must be reminded that there is only one government that directly represents all Canadians and that we cannot achieve our goals and aspirations if we accept that there are only provincial or local answers to the challenges we face.

Canada remains a land of incredible opportunity with a vibrant globally connected population. Whether in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern, economic and social progress in the 21st century is about secure sources of clean energy; accessible education and training for more and more people, with credentials that are portable nationally and globally; a health-care system that is innovative, responsive to major public health challenges, in which access to and quality of health-care services do not depend on your place of residence; public infrastructure that supports environmentally sustainable growth in a global economy; and where competition for investment and jobs can and should be won by a race to the top, not the bottom.

We are stronger when we work together, when our achievement is measured by our commitment and responsibility to our fellow citizens, not by our level of consumption – and when we protect the human dignity of our neighbour, we protect the dignity of us all.

So we need a national clean-energy strategy in which Canada takes the leadership role in North America, rather than passively taking a back seat to the dysfunctional U.S. Congress. This means establishing a national economy-wide price for carbon already promoted by leaders of both energy-intensive industries and the environmental community, which can be harmonized constructively with global efforts. To make this work, we need major investment in interprovincial transmission of electrical energy and a leading Canadian role in the regulation and management of the North American grid.

The Conservative party’s election announcement of a substantial loan guarantee for the Lower Churchill River hydro project, however welcome, simply led immediately to the prime minister mediating a haggling match among provincial premiers and a vague commitment to “equity across regions.” This is not good enough – a string of ad hoc deals with provinces is not a coherent national strategy. Neither is refusing to address our concerns over the impact of energy developments on our health and the environment, from the oil sands to shale gas, or punting them into the black hole of federal-provincial negotiations.

To date, our national representatives seem utterly incapable of engaging citizens directly in a civil discussion to find workable, scientifically sound solutions. Filmmaker James Cameron’s visit to Alberta last year, and discussions with politicians and aboriginal leaders about the oil sands did more to highlight the interests at stake than anything said in the halls of power.

Similar bold leadership is needed for the renewal of health care for the 21st century and undertaking long-overdue investments to renew our flagging physical and social infrastructure. And through all this we need an open conversation about finances and fiscal responsibility. Where money is raised from federal taxes, we need federal accountability for the results, and measurable targets for social and economic outcomes, whichever level or levels of government are delivering the programs.

Bringing the focus of national governance back to the needs and collective responsibilities of Canadians, and restoring the Canadian people to the centre of our democratic structures, also require clear proposals for institutional change. We need better checks and balances within our parliamentary structure to define and promote the interests of the Canadian people. We should not have to rely on provincial premiers to articulate the Canadian national interest in such matters as equalization and foreign takeovers.

We could adopt a new electoral system based on proportional principles that moves us beyond the divisive winner-take-all politics represented by the first-past-the-post system. We also need an elected Senate with, among other things, specific powers to represent regional concerns and work with the House of Commons to produce workable national action plans for everything from climate-change strategies to health care, from infrastructure investment to energy. The elected Senate would also be the forum within which to protect the interests of Quebec as the only majority French-speaking province. Whatever institutional options are chosen should be approved by Canadians in a national referendum.

Beyond changes to our institutions, we must develop avenues for much greater citizen participation to find solutions, compromise, and common ground on critical challenges we face. As the Liberal party rebuilds, this means encouraging powerful grassroots, citizen-based structures – not around political party agendas, but around issues and concerns that engage us.

Political parties have declined as vehicles for public participation. Gaining the loyalty and trust of Canadians in the networked age of the internet, Facebook, and Twitter requires nimble responsiveness and transparency on any and all issues through web-based mechanisms, such as those used so effectively by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The 2011 election represents a challenge for the many Canadians who support the vision of a strong national government and bold national ambitions. That no political party today promotes this vision does not mean that Canadians no longer care or that it no longer resonates with us.

The vision of a strong national government historically found a home in the Liberal Party of Canada. Perhaps neither the party nor the vision will survive – nothing is immortal. But they will either rise or continue to fall together. Now is the time for like-minded Canadians to come together, forum by forum, riding by riding, and fight for nothing less than the soul of our nation.