Five bright ideas to save the Liberal party

TheStar.com – News/Insght
Published On Fri Apr 02 2010.  By David Olive, Business Columnist

Funny how a Liberal Party-sponsored “thinkfest” declared a flop even before it was held last weekend in Montreal is still making waves. Canadians are hungry for bold ideas about our future and plenty brave enough to confront some daunting realities. That’s what we got from the 50 or so experts in a range of fields at the Canada 150 conference last weekend. And media commentators have been cogitating on these inconvenient truths ever since.

Much head-shaking absurdity was showcased in Montreal, in an exercise billed as the Grits’ effort to reinvent themselves. But the three days of presentations left one frustrated that these Canadian shortcomings and opportunities aren’t the grist of everyday discussion among our leadership class.

The cautious Conservatives govern as if they hope no one will notice. The Grits have nothing to say (or, more precisely, a leader who soon retracts what little he does say). And for different reasons, few listen to the NDP or the Bloc. But if our national political leadership is sleepwalking through history, Canadians are expressing a confidence about the future that oddly doesn’t find a voice in Ottawa.

Nowhere is it written that our civility and other blessings are so secure that without the sort of “continuous improvement” for which Asian automakers are widely emulated can we be assured of that bright future for which the groundwork was long ago laid. A new or retrofitted Liberal party could build on that foundation.

In that spirit, here are five policies a new or retrofitted party could adopt:

ECONOMIC SOVEREIGNTY

As the world’s most prominent branch-plant economy, we suffer a brain drain to where the decision-makers are, in the U.S., Europe and, increasingly, Beijing and Mumbai. A country that invented standard time, insulin and the BlackBerry that U.S. President Barack Obama finds indispensable can do better than this. Better than having government do most of the R&D spending in this country, while the private sector shirks on new-product development and is left naked to its export rivals when the prop of an undervalued loonie is removed.

BlackBerrys, Magna auto parts and B.C. chardonnays compete on quality and ceaseless innovation, not on price alone. That is how you conquer world markets. We need to encourage the managers of our enormous pools of pension-fund and other institutional capital to invest more at home, both in promising start-ups and venerable firms like the now foreign-owned Inco, and less in British airports and Houston office complexes.

UNITE THE CENTRE-LEFT

The Liberals, having put in steadily worse performances in the past three elections, give the impression of circling the drain. With nothing to lose, they could do worse than formally ally with their rival on the progressive end of the political spectrum, where most Canadians are found. They could do worse than embrace a robust progressive agenda, of the sort that first made them the “natural governing party.” The NDP has been on the right side of history on the big issues, correctly forecasting a shrinking middle class, a 21st-century economy driven by “green jobs,” and the hollowing out of our manufacturing sector. But a candidly socialist party will never form a national government in Canada. Only by uniting was the right able to form a government. Now it’s the centre-left’s turn to end our status as a one-party state.

AN END TO DRIVE-BY HUMANITARIANISM

We fancy ourselves a moral superpower but rank a disgraceful 18th among the 22 leading donor nations in foreign aid. And that was before Ottawa’s latest budget, which cuts foreign-assistance spending by $4.4 billion over five years. Worse, both Liberal and Tory governments have been in the practice of scattering our assistance across scores of countries in order to curry favour with the Canadian diasporas of recipient nations. As responsible world citizens, we would instead increase our foreign aid to the 0.7 per cent of GDP to which we are formally committed, from the current 0.33 per cent. (Norway and Sweden spend 1.0 per cent.)

A bold departure would have us focusing our assistance. On, for instance, Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa — the poorest nation in the western hemisphere and the most destitute region in the world, respectively. Let other donors, from our example of concentrated, effectual assistance in selected places, similarly discriminate in directing their help to other countries in need.

HEALTH-CARE RENAISSANCE

Skyrocketing health-care costs are a fixation of governments from Japan to France, all facing the same demographic challenge of an aging population as we do, but not content as we are in passively watching health-care costs gobble up 40 per cent of our economy by mid-century, likely sooner. Health care is perhaps the one major field most stubbornly resistant to reform in both quality (medical errors are rampant) and cost-efficiency. At least in its big cities, China is far ahead of North America in electronic medical records, which cut down on errors and costly duplication, and make “distance care” more practical.

As to the breadth of coverage, our imagined comprehensive Medicare coverage is anything but. It lacks the universal dental care of Britain and state-funded prescription-drug provision of France and Japan.

Just as caregivers have little incentive to rethink treatment, patients have little reason to adopt a healthier lifestyle of proper diet and fitness. A reinvented Medicare would impose means-testing and co-pays to provide that incentive. As part of that overhaul, universal care would be made truly comprehensive by embracing dental health and pharmacare extending beyond the seniors now receiving it.

A CARING SOCIETY

Without affordable housing and enriched day care, we maintain the cycle of poverty in which generations of Canadians have been trapped. Our productivity malaise stems largely from too many Canadians rendered unhealthy and under-educated by chronic poverty. Twenty-one years after Parliament unanimously committed Canada to eradicating child poverty by 2000, about 1 million children live below the poverty line.

Human capital is our only significant resource. (Prosperous Switzerland and Japan have no natural-resource bounty to speak of.) Common sense dictates that under-investment in our people is a drag on our economy, diverting public funds to welfare payouts and the criminal-justice system. It impedes our progress in nurturing the creativity by which wealth is created, with our inability to tap the latent strengths of so many Canadians in distress whom we casually neglect.

One hears less and less of the elusive Canadian identity. We know who we are. But we define ourselves a bit too much by what we don’t do. We don’t project our natural-gas-based hegemony over Europe, as Russia does. Nor do we take leave of our senses in running up a $1-trillion (U.S.) tab in a botched war of choice in Iraq.

It’s time to define ourselves by what we do, becoming home to the world’s most prosperous aboriginal population, the world’s best-run health-care system, the go-to nation for learning how to use social justice as a test for all we do.

Then we can grow into our favourable reputation abroad, not fearing it will crumble on close inspection. We’ll then be as Jane Fonda described us years ago: “When I’m in Canada, I feel this is what the world should be like.”

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