Practical Policy Can Trump Partisan Pettiness (February 2014)

Can anyone really be surprised by the news that the Conservative Party war room is consumed with developing a detailed plan to disrupt this month’s federal Liberal policy convention in Montreal? This is simply the latest act of partisan pettiness from a government that more and more Canadians consider to be past its best-before date. A government that spends more time and energy pandering to a shrinking party base than governing in the national interest for all Canadians.

The Conservatives are frightened, and so they should be. An end-of-year Nanos poll indicates clearly that Canadians are extremely concerned with the Harper Conservatives’ governance in all significant areas – the performance of the government, the direction of the country, federal-provincial relations, and Canada’s reputation abroad.

Perhaps the most important challenge now facing Canadians is restoring confidence in our representative democracy and a parliamentary system seriously damaged by eight years of centralized Conservative rule out of a bloated Prime Minister’s Office. Secondly, we must restore confidence in the ability of the national government – the one government elected by all of us – to manage the economy in an effective equitable way that unifies us rather than divides us, and strengthens One Canada.

The Liberal Party policy convention intends to address pressing some issues of democratic reform. One priority resolution, if passed, will strengthen the party commitment, when in government, to consult with Canadians on legislating a new electoral process with a system of proportional representation or preferential balloting. The resolution also includes a number of proposals, such as allowing more free votes and stronger Commons committees that will restore power to Parliament and the people, and ensure more transparency and accountability to citizens.

Let us hope the policy convention goes further to discuss many other specific measures to move beyond the dictatorial governing style of the Conservative government, especially on the economy. Canadians are no longer willing to accept uncritically the Conservative formula of annual budgets set out in messy everything-but-the-kitchen-sink omnibus bills, forced though Parliament with minimal debate, and then sold to Canadians through endlessly repetitive, costly, and in some cases fictional advertising about a pretend “economic action plan.”

Nor are Canadians content with the depressing cycle of unilateral change in Ottawa, perfected by the Conservatives, that tinkers with our economic fundamentals only to serve short-sighted partisan goals without collaborating with other levels of government. From science to the environment, from Employment Insurance to immigration reforms, from healthcare and education standards to infrastructure, Conservative actions have all too often provoked counter-productive responses at other levels of government, or expensive, wasteful court challenges.

Conservatives do not have a monopoly on fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets. Canadians now expect this of any government. Good economic management in a federation like Canada means the federal government bringing Canadians and their governments together – whether provincial, municipal or Aboriginal – to undertake wide-ranging changes in a collaborative way to strengthen the fundamentals of a productive innovative economy. Ottawa’s active and constructive leadership is needed to bring about the change we need in a fiscally responsible way, and convince our incredibly diverse and dynamic citizenry that we can accomplish great things together.

To really address constructively Canada’s long-term potential and challenges, we need to build the essential pillars of a strong economy and promote specific, measurable, collective goals that are glaringly absent in the Conservatives’ short-term partisan playbook:

  • Cleaning up our exemption-riddled tax system and our convoluted unaccountable system of federal-provincial fiscal transfers including equalization.
  • Ending the mess of barriers to productive economic activity across provincial borders and guaranteeing complete portability of educational and training certifications and credentials across Canada.
  • Establishing clear, workable national standards for everything from healthcare to business regulations, including the most advanced national environmental standards to guide natural resource development, so that competition for investment and jobs is won by a race to the top, not the bottom.
  • Ensuring robust infrastructure funding coordinated across governments for everything from transit to bridges to social housing to broadband access, and providing stable long-term support for basic and applied science.
  • Overhauling Employment Insurance to implement a system of extensive apprenticeship and training opportunities so that all Canadians get the transitional support and training needed to find work.
  • Transforming our existing mechanisms for establishing minimum income levels – the floor below which no Canadian should fall – through synchronizing/harmonizing the jumble of federal and provincial tax, transfer and other measures like the minimum wage.

All of these goals require constructive collaboration across all governments, led by a national government that is looking over the horizon – committed to securing our long-term future, not just the next election. With the Senate now sidelined, pending serious constitutional reform,  as an ineffective vehicle for addressing regional concerns or good national governance, I continue to promote the creation of a Council of Canadian Governments to be an effective supplement to Canada’s optional First Ministers’ Conferences – which are currently held only on the whim of the prime minister.

There should be no doubt that, in 2015, when Canadians consider which political party is best positioned to bring about this critical leadership and collaboration, the Conservative Party will not be on their list.