A new Ontario window on national policy [Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation]

TheStar.com – Opinion – A new Ontario window on national policy
Published On Tue Jan 26 2010.   Matthew Mendelsohn

Ontario’s longest serving premier and a father of Confederation, Sir Oliver Mowat, recognized that Ontario’s economic strength would be an essential component of Canada’s future success. He worked hard to ensure that Ontario became an economic force within an expanding federation.

By the mid-1990s, NDP premier Bob Rae worried that Ontario was being treated like the rich guy at the end of the bar who was always expected to pick up the tab. Conservative premier Mike Harris later expressed concerns that other provinces had become dependent on transfers from Ontario taxpayers. At the time, though, most Ontarians did not grapple with these concerns because Ontario was better off than other provinces.

Today, Ontarians recognize that the provincial, national and global economies have changed. Ontarians increasingly recognize that we must identify new national policies that build a stronger Canada – but that don’t ask us to foot a bill we can no longer afford.

These issues have a new sense of urgency. Premier Dalton McGuinty today makes the case that the extent of redistribution from Ontario to other parts of Canada is no longer justifiable, given the wealth in other parts of the country, and is no longer affordable, given the global challenges being faced by Ontario. And today, people in Ontario get it to an extent that they didn’t a decade ago. And many other Canadians get it now, too.

Canada’s 20th-century policy architecture successfully built a protected national internal market, a strong manufacturing base centred in southwestern Ontario, a vibrant resource sector centred in the west, and a set of redistributive policies that supported less prosperous individuals and regions. It also established common national programs that enhanced equality of opportunity for all Canadians. These policies contributed to Canadian prosperity, an enviable quality of life and national unity.

But the Canadian and global economies have experienced unprecedented change over the past two decades. Today, wealth is more evenly distributed across Canada’s regions. Canada’s prosperity is now driven by natural resources and services rather than manufacturing. The country’s economic orientation is now less east-west and is more north-south – and more global. Canadians deal with the realities of globalization, not a protected internal market. Most provinces have joined Ontario in relative prosperity and Ontario itself has many challenges that require a concentration of its resources closer to home.

Unfortunately, our national policies and programs have not kept pace. Canadians are left to face the challenge of globalization with archaic 20th-century policy architecture.

Many of our most important national programs at the heart of our social safety net were built on a core assumption: Ontario is rich and others are not. Canadians know this isn’t true anymore.

While it has been clear for a long time that this redistribution was economically inefficient, it is increasingly clear that it no longer serves a wider social justice purpose either. In Canada, we have too often confused inter-regional redistribution with social justice, when in fact it is the most vulnerable in Ontario who are often not getting what they need from federal programs.

Take employment insurance for example. Just about everyone recognizes that EI is a dysfunctional program that no longer meets the needs of a 21st-century economy or of most Canadians. But attempts at serious reform have broken down. No one has been willing to bring about the reforms that the program so badly needs.

If we wish to preserve our remarkable achievements, we need to make some important changes to our most important policies, informed by respectful, evidence-based dialogue, and a clear understanding of the economic and demographic realities we face.

These solutions are most likely to come from Ontario. While other Canadians and the federal government may increasingly understand the new Ontario realities, the incentives for change are felt most strongly here. It is Ontarians who must lead this discussion.

Ontarians are ideally placed to suggest ways to reanimate the Canadian social contract in light of these new realities because Ontarians are so committed to building a strong, prosperous and just Canada.

Ontarians do not yet know what that new vision will look like, but we know we cannot afford the status quo. A new research institute will help identify necessary changes, consistent with our values, our identity and our means.

Ontario needs a non-partisan research centre to lead the research that will help ensure that our national policies keep pace with our changing country. If Canada’s 21st century is to be as successful as its 20th, Canadians and their governments must be prepared to creatively update some of our public policy frameworks. Moving forward, it will be essential to reimagine the Canadian social contract with an understanding of the New Ontario. This is the core mission of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation.

Matthew Mendelsohn, a former Ontario deputy minister, is the founding Director of the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto. The centre officially launched Monday.

< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/article/755673–a-new-ontario-window-on-national-policy >

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