Canada at 150 (3)
Can a political party win with an agenda that asks us to lower our expectations now in exchange for sustainable and just growth later? Are we prepared to pay a bit more in taxes now in exchange for a government committed to find new and better ways to deliver what we need? Are we prepared to get past our anger or distrust of government to allow it to be fresh and creative, knowing full well that innovation will mean mistakes?
Is the age of public enterprise truly over in Canada? Even when I read the rare comment trying to say something positive about government or politicians or public servants, I inevitably also find in response an avalanche of vitriol about waste and inefficiency and so-called corruption. Critics cannot stop pointing at a couple of “grand scandals” to bolster their view that government cannot be trusted (though it was government processes of access to information and audit that ensured that these incidents came to light and it was governments that routinely called in the police to enforce the law). The important value of accountability is in danger of becoming a cult of blame and control that strangles innovation and makes an already risk averse culture risk-petrified. And of course that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy – government will not be able to raise its game.
Government has been pretty good to us. Do we doubt that our collective efforts to deliver medicare and pensions and help to families raising children have contributed to our enviable quality of life? Dismissing that as “nanny state” doesn’t really add anything of value unless we are saying that there is something wrong with helping the vulnerable become more independent.
Do we doubt that our efforts to improve the quality of education and access to it have strengthened our economy and our society? And that we have been relatively successful in constraining the worst excesses of inequality? And again critics will mutter “social engineering” as though equality of opportunity and fairness were not legitimate collective goals. And what about the regulations that give us and our partners confidence that our food and medicines are safe? And what about the public infrastructure that shapes the quality of life in our cities and communities and makes us attractive to investors?
“Oh no, tax and spend”, some will respond to all this, as if any tax is bad and all spending waste? Whether we want government to focus on control to stop bad things from happening or on social end economic development to make good things happen, governments will tax and spend. I have never met a politician who likes to raise taxes or a citizen who enjoys paying – but cutting taxes is not a free good. And whether we pool risks as we have done on pensions, health care and employment insurance or face the risks alone, we will pay – one way or another.
But the demographic pressures are not abstract imaginings; the consequences on our revenues and programs are certain and profound. Putting off the tough choices invites fewer and even tougher choices in the future.
Are we ready for tough talk on programs and services, on what we can reasonably expect and on what we must pay? Of course government must change, must focus less on old-style programs and more on new ways to deliver results, must be more creative, ready to enable and draw on the ingenuity of Canadians, and must be more open to the world. Are we prepared to give government the room to change? To be sure, a central government must listen and “convene”. But it must also be willing to lead, to speak for Canada, to engage us in common purpose despite our differences, to challenge us to raise our game and to encourage us to look beyond our self-interest. Do we have the collective will for this kind of leadership?