Trading Apathy For Action: Time For A New Ethic Of Government And Citizenship (April 2010)

What Canada really needs is bold leadership that will unite the country and an electorate that demands as much.

The fractious trajectory of the health care agreement in the U.S. should encourage Canadians to reflect on the crisis of national governance in both Canada and the U.S. It is unhelpful and hollow to simply breathe a sigh of relief that we had the foresight to implement universal medicare 40 years ago.

The reality is, Canada faces a crisis of national governance similar to America. Though lacking the inspiring leadership of a Barack Obama or the vocal vitriol of the Tea Party, Ottawa is just as dysfunctional and paralyzed as Washington.

Regrettably, Canadians have lacked compelling national leadership for a long time. The absence of a strong voice in Ottawa challenging us to think big and implement a coherent nation-building agenda means that an entire generation of young people, whether born in Canada or moving here with their families, has grown up in a directionless, uninspiring vacuum.

Why? Over the last quarter century, as national governments increasingly focused on balancing budgets, one of the fundamental principles of good governance – fiscal responsibility – became the overriding end in itself. Political platforms became excruciatingly boring cost accounting exercises with the national civil service relegated to mere accountants. Voter engagement declined precipitously. And while we did succeed brilliantly in achieving the goal of deficit reduction in the 1990s, we then failed to make use of our fiscal strength to pursue coherent, long-term national initiatives.

Now, recent successive minority governments have squandered with impunity our fiscal strength on a hodge-podge of partisan initiatives from micro tax credits for transit passes to more jails to quiet the fringe. And on almost every issue – the environment, clean energy, Afghanistan, gun control, isotopes, food safety, reforms of EI, pensions, health care – the government has behaved dictatorially, disrespectful of Parliament and by extension the people of Canada, stifling intelligent open debate, attacking and intimidating those with whom it disagrees, and in some cases resorting to deliberate undermining of the rule of law.

When Parliament was abruptly prorogued for a second time, Canadians surprised even themselves with a burst of public outrage. But that has now faded away. Our national government once again believes that as long as the traditional metrics of economic strength improve, Canadians will passively settle for minimal national government – government that stands for nothing in particular and that avoids conflict by shrinking itself, shifting both moral and material responsibilities to provinces and municipalities.

A vicious circle is setting in: those who govern demand too little of us, and we in turn expect too little of them.

If we start to believe that we are not stronger when we act together to advance fairness, justice, and equality in Canadian society in a meaningful way, then we lose all sense of joint responsibility, shared sacrifice, and national purpose. If we start to believe that people’s behaviour is only shaped by whether we stand to gain or lose, that human progress is only measured by material things, then moral indifference triumphs over the fundamental principle that protecting the dignity of our neighbour protects the dignity of us all.

As we contemplate yet another national election, our greatest deficit is not financial or monetary: it is a deficit of good governance and good citizenship.

Good governance is all about confident national leadership that allays our fear of rapid change, and calls on our mutual obligations as Canadian citizens to take responsibility for our world and the world of our children and grandchildren. It means national leadership with the credibility to remind us that, despite our extraordinary freedom to choose to identify with different religious, political, linguistic, and cultural communities, at all times we are individuals building an inclusive society where achievement is measured by our commitment and responsibility to our fellow citizens.

Good citizenship is the counterpart to good governance. Good citizenship requires us to rediscover our sense of moral indignation and denounce both mediocre leadership and citizen apathy while demanding public action. Good citizenship is telling our leaders that we are prepared to ask as much of ourselves as we do of our governments.

To seriously address the deficit of good governance and good citizenship, we need a new ethic of politics – unflinching honesty, straight talk, transparency, and accountability – in which the dedication of our elected representatives to public service and the national interest is beyond question, and civil moral discourse is restored, indeed encouraged.

But we will fail to realize our potential to be a great nation if our leaders continue to cast national politics as a boring out-dated struggle between supporters of smaller government and less spending versus bigger government and more spending; supporters of private sector initiative versus public initiative; supporters of “conservative values” versus liberal or socialist values. This is seriously out-of-sync with the rhythm of our times.

The vast majority of Canadians simply want good, honest government, of whatever size is justifiable and appropriate, that provides bold national leadership across the full spectrum of issues that demand national attention.

The time is long overdue for the sustained encouragement of bold and imaginative leadership and governance to restore our collective ability to manage change and to advance our ideals of a fair, compassionate, and innovative country.

Let me suggest an agenda for change:

  1. Public support for at least two years of community college beyond high school, now essential for most 21st century jobs.
  2. Early childhood care and education, including help to all provinces to provide full-day school-based options from the age of three.
  3. A national energy framework that includes a national carbon price and ensures equitable access to clean energy across the country.
  4. A National Health Council with a mandate to ensure a comparable range and quality of health care services across the country and to explore all financing options.
  5. An arms-length Criminal Justice Council to recommend all Criminal Code amendments to avoid ill-informed partisan policies.
  6. An arms-length Commission to advise the national government on all federal contributions to provinces, including equalization, to bring coherence, consistence, and accountability to the current incomprehensible and divisive jumble of payments.
  7. Compulsory voting with a voting age of 16.
  8. A Canadian head of state that reflects our 21st century collective identity.
  9. Senate reform, shaped by citizen participation and ratified in a national referendum, that will enable Parliament to function effectively as a legitimate accountable forum for developing national standards and initiatives.
  10. A real economic union so that people, goods, services, and investment do not face provincial obstacles.
  11. National action to ensure that all Canadians, whether urban or rural, have comparable access to affordable broadband service.
  12. Public investment in our physical infrastructure – public transportation, sewers, water filtration, parks, recreation, and social housing – and a Bank for Infrastructure Development that determines the value of each infrastructure project, its environmental impact, and streamlines the process of reviewing and signing off on major projects.
  13. Coherent and equitable national immigration policies that encourage both highly-skilled workers as well as the less-educated immigrants who, as in the past, will build Canada through their determination to discover and define their own opportunities as citizens.
  14. Real equity for aboriginal Canadians and the elimination of disgraceful third-world conditions to provide aboriginal Canadians with the same quality of life and opportunities that we like to think we offer all Canadians.
  15. A national initiative to require all Boards of Directors to consist of at least 40 per cent women within five years, similar to the successful Norwegian program implemented in 2003-2008.
  16. Rigorous national standards and regulation of toxic chemicals in the environment – the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.
  17. A serious national cyber security strategy.
  18. Finally, national leadership that refuses to pander to prejudice and parochialism; leadership that vigorously defends the fundamental values of equality between men and women, and non-discrimination that underpin our inclusive society.