We know the challenges – how to ensure good jobs for our children and theirs in a hyper-competitive, global economy, how to conserve our natural bounty for future generations and play our part in addressing climate change, how to restructure our health and social programs in the face of the demographic crunch, how to define our common citizenship in the global era, how to earn our place at the international table – and fundamental to all of this, understanding the role of government and how governments can rise to fill that role. So why aren’t we talking about these issues together?
The answer has to do in part with Ottawa’s failure to meaningfully engage Canadians around any of these challenges. Many look back with nostalgia at the big collective policy decisions that shaped post-war Canada – patriation and the Charter or Canada-U.S. Free Trade, for example – as moments where government was able to rise to the challenges, where, for better or worse, government mattered. But even in the absence of any “big bang,” a country does change and, whether it seeks to shape that change or simply let it play out, government does matter.
Much change in Canada happens without much talk. It happens through entropy, selective inattention, and incremental action – and it is no less profound, only less visible. It sneaks up on us and, unless we are paying attention, it shapes us far more than we shape it. Given the current stakes and stark choices, whatever our views, we cannot afford to turn our backs on the political process or throw up our hands at Ottawa. If growing distrust or cynicism about government leads us to withdraw into our private lives as though the public sphere were irrelevant or impossible to influence, we will ask too little of our leaders and that’s what we will get.
Global and domestic forces don’t wait for Ottawa to take note. Drift has direction: environmental degradation accelerates, inequality deepens, the productivity gap widens, our population ages, and health and social programs that served us so well fray.
How do we explain government’s inattention to issues that ought to be impossible to ignore? For one, Ottawa’s policy capacity has been in decline for some time, a result in part of cuts to research and in part of a growing divide between elected officials and public servants whose advice is less often sought or trusted. The federal public service, long a major, if largely invisible, Canadian strength, is increasingly described as in crisis, trying to serve in a climate of blame and mistrust masquerading as accountability.
No doubt governments, and minority governments in particular, are reluctant to take on the big issues because they inevitably raise thorny jurisdictional questions and highlight deep conflicts of interest and regional divides. Nowhere is this truer than of the challenges around education, energy, and the environment to which a Canadian approach would have to reconcile competing visions of the country and the profoundly different economic interests of our provinces. In these cases, as in most, inattention is easier than policy.
Kim Campbell was being forthright, if impolitic, when, during her election campaign, she said that such times are no time for talking about policy. Today, our minority governments and their opposition are in perpetual campaign mode, giving us an Ottawa that is all politics all the time. And so, instead of issues, we get partisan tactics, slogans, and slinging, sending the clear message that they care more about their survival than ours.
The media reflect and reinforce this preoccupation with tactics and political games. Big policy issues are complex: their resolution requires “the courage to be boring,” neither to simplify the complicated nor obfuscate the simple. In the competition for public attention and the demands to fill an ever-larger news hole, complexity is often the loser.
Partisan noise and apparent inattention do not mean that governments – smart governments – are not pursuing a clear plan. Inattention to issues may not simply be expedient. Indeed it may reflect deeply held views about the role of government in a federal system. Ignoring big issues in Ottawa automatically favours private and local initiative and diverse regional solutions over national initiatives. The political racket just makes the plan harder to see.
Similarly we may be surprised when the cumulative impact of successive incremental decisions plays out. In the criminal justice sector, for example, sentences are getting tougher, judicial discretion is being reduced, conditional release is becoming more difficult. Year after year, small step after small step, our system is being transformed, without a real discussion, and in the face of experts who insist that public safety will in fact suffer, that these approaches do not work. Crime rates, they point out, have been coming down for about twenty years, at least partly a result of more balanced, less punitive policies. There are of course legitimate debates to be had about what is just and effective punishment – but we deserve, and ought to demand, a real conversation about the options and the evidence, the costs and the trade-offs.
Then there are the consequences of years of tax cuts, implemented in the absence of any sustained public conversation about their implications. Somehow tax decisions have been divorced from the services and public goods they buy. And politicians, with few exceptions, won’t talk about the need to revise the tax system for fear of being seen as “tax and spend”-ers, just as they are reluctant to question stringent crime policies lest they appear “soft on crime.” So we don’t debate what should be private and what should be public. We don’t discuss the kind of government we want and are willing to pay for.
Not so long ago, political scientist John Meisel referred to us as a “public enterprise” country, a country that trusted government, believed in a collective project and the sharing of risk. Is that how we would describe ourselves today? By selective inattention and incremental decisions, we are changing. How much better it would be, within the degrees of our freedom, to participate in shaping that change.
This will require that we demand more of our leaders. And now may just be the moment.
Notice that normally reticent former finance officials are entering the fray, trying to force a real debate on the role of government and our willingness to pay for it. Or that so many Canadians are reacting to the prorogation, perhaps a symptom of a deeper concern. It looks like those with an interest in public policy now 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 engaging in the big debates, some of our best magazines and news outlets 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.
What we need now is a public discourse that neither dismisses nor panders to our private concerns, but rather links them to public issues. It’s time we override our impulse to paper over our differences and demand that our leaders participate with us in the dialogue, however difficult, we so need. We cannot let Canada change without a fight – or at least a vigorous conversation.