Some of our best pundits have been asking why we in Canada are not having the kinds of national policy debates we need. We know the challenges and risks but we are not talking about them publicly.
We do of course have some important think tanks of the right, left and centre (too few and often struggling for resources) and many Canadian scholars and researchers are working on the big issues – the power of international financial markets, the social and health implications of demographic change, religion and public policy, the adequacy of our public institutions and the role of government. But researchers and policy makers don’t seem to be talking to each other and when they do they seem often to be talking different languages.
Perhaps Kim Campbell was right if impolitic when she said, in the midst of her election campaign, that election campaigns are no time for talking about policy. This is particularly problematic when minority governments and opposition parties are in perpetual campaign mode, giving us government that is all politics all the time. And so, instead of big debates, we get slogans and slinging . But the problem goes beyond minority politics. Big policy issues are complex: their resolution requires, as somebody once said, ” the courage to be boring”, neither simplifying the complicated nor obfuscating the simple. In the competition for public attention, complexity is often the loser. So, while Canada has excellent political commentators and analysts, their voices are often lost in the media preoccupation with spectacle and scandal. Perhaps too in Canada we have some distrust of big vision and big debates because we have learned how divisive they can be and we prefer not to poke at the seams , and all the more so when distrust of government prevails.
The absence of big debates does not mean that big changes are not happening. But to the extent that they are happening, they are happening without us – the consequence of drift or deception or some combination. Not so long ago John Meisel referred to us as a “public enterprise” country, a country that trusted government, believed in collective enterprise and sharing of risk. Is that how we would describe ourselves today? Big change is happening.
How much better it would be, within the degrees of our freedom, to participate in shaping that change or at least having the opportunity to participate in the discussion. This may just be the moment. Interesting to see normally reticent former finance officials entering the fray trying to force a real debate on the role of government and our willingness to pay for it. Interesting to see so many Canadians react to the prorogation, perhaps a symptom of a deeper concern. It looks like those with an interest in public policy have an opportunity to push the discussion – and a responsibility to do so.
We see other hopeful signs – new public policy schools and centres are popping up across the country, university leaders are getting engaged in the big debates, some of our best magazines are creating more space and new approaches to tackling the issues that matter and reaching new audiences, online media are exploiting the possibilities of the internet to provide a new agora. The Centre for Global Challenges seeks to be part of this policy renewal – international, interdisciplinary and intergenerational, thickening the public discourse and strengthening the dialogue between practitioners and scholars.