1. Who Will Step Up? / Qui relèvera le défi ?

(Policy papers 2012-2013)

Canada’s system of government is frustratingly focused on the blame game. Citizens who are looking for action on urgent national problems throw up their hands when our leaders respond with “Is that issue federal, provincial, municipal, or Aboriginal?” Governments too often take the easy way out by avoiding public scrutiny or satisfying short-term partisan or regional demands. Before Canadians lose all faith in the political system, we must get back to open debate, accountable decision-making, and collaboration that advances the interests of all citizens and, most important, the nation as a whole.

Il est frustrant de voir à quel point le système gouvernemental canadien joue sur le blâme. Les citoyens à la recherche de solutions aux problèmes urgents à l’échelle nationale abandonnent la partie quand nos dirigeants leur répondent « Cette question relève-t-elle du gouvernement fédéral, provincial, municipal ou autochtone ? ». Trop souvent, les gouvernements optent pour la solution de facilité : éviter le débat public et acquiescer à des demandes partisanes ou régionales à courte vue. Avant que les Canadiens ne perdent entièrement confiance dans le système politique, le débat public doit reprendre sa place, de même que la prise de décision responsable, et l’esprit de collaboration en vue de promouvoir les intérêts de tous les citoyens, et surtout les intérêts de la nation dans son ensemble.


During the Occupy demonstrations in the fall of 2011, Canadians of all ages and backgrounds came together with many concerns. For some it was the extraordinary gap between the salaries of CEOs and ordinary shop-floor workers, for others it was anything from inadequate pensions to the lack of public transit. Observers complained that the protests lacked focus and that it was therefore difficult for governments to respond.

Ultimately, federal, provincial, and municipal politicians stayed in their corners and made serially soothing statements limited to their jurisdictions. The prime minister and his finance minister emphasized that, thanks to our stable financial and banking regulations, Canada had escaped the worst of the worldwide recession. Provincial premiers expressed sympathy and pointed to their own programs and initiatives. Municipal leaders also sympathized but eventually had to give the orders to break up the camps on city property. Nobody stepped up to the plate.

So much of what affects Canadians directly involves more than one government, whether federal, provincial, municipal, or Aboriginal. How can people have any real impact on public policy if the responsibilities of each level of government are unclear, and if it is so easy for one government to simply pass the blame to another?

Almost 150 years ago, the Fathers of Confederation improbably, courageously, and creatively came together to create a federal system of governance that would guarantee Canada a distinctive place in North America, able to defend itself without British help against any expansionist moves by its neighbour to the south. Today the threats have changed but our leaders remain stubbornly mired in old structures and debates, frequently drifting without clear purpose, and remarkably inaccessible and out of touch with citizens.

Instead of government for the people conducted in open forums such as legislatures, we increasingly have government by decree that serves narrow partisan or regional interests rather than the broader public good. The trend toward centralized executive rule has undermined basic liberal democratic values: the rule of law, equal respect for all citizens, and accountability and transparency in government. In Canada, the additional complication of intergovernmental squabbling stymies any serious progress on critical issues. Governments make decisions behind closed doors to spend billions on many of the policies and services that matter most to us, such as health care, without coming to grips with the tough choices necessary to ensure a sustainable future.

The federal government, in particular, provides no leadership to encourage the collaboration of the other governments so that they can all deliver good public services to Canadians. Instead, too many initiatives at the national level, from tax measures to criminal sentencing guidelines, are undertaken with little or no consideration for their broader impact, at best, or only to address a partisan demand, at worst. A case in point is the 2% reduction of the GST in 2006 and 2007, which had a huge impact on government budgets and, by extension, on services that Canadians needed during the worst recession in modern memory. (Coincidentally, the $12 billion in federal funding lost every year as a result of the GST reduction is equal to the cost, estimated by the National Council of Welfare in 2007, of lifting every Canadian out of poverty.)

It should not be surprising that many citizens no longer believe the political system can deliver honest, effective government or govern in the long-term public interest. Just ask the unemployed and underemployed, who desperately need coordinated measures by all levels of government to create jobs, make employment insurance fairer, and prepare workers for the skilled jobs that are presently unfilled. Ask the Nortel pensioners who discovered not only that their pensions were catastrophically underfunded, but also that provincial pension insurance wouldn’t make good their losses. Ask the parents of children with autism, who need better comparability in health services across Canada. Ask low-income families and individuals living on the margin, who find that small increases in precarious employment income can trigger devastating reductions in essential benefits.

In seeking more effective ways to express their concerns and dissatisfaction, many citizens have also given up on political parties[23], whose agendas they see as dictated by party machines rather than the public interest. To many, parties appear just as ineffectual and out of touch as the governments they underpin. However, new ways for people to come together to discuss, plan and innovate are emerging. Special interest groups are now much more effective than our traditional parties in shaping public debate. The Occupy movement is simply a new channel for citizen angst and frustration with the political system. The challenge for political parties and our political leadership is to cultivate lively, interactive digital debate and connect with the moderate voices, leaving the extremists on the margins.

If we hope to address the malaise of political dysfunction and disengagement, politicians must get out of their jurisdictional silos and work together to find common ground, negotiate compromises, and build solutions. Only when they acknowledge their collective responsibility to all citizens and the national interest will they be able to meet Canadians’ expectations.