Four challenges we need to start thinking about

TheStar.com – Opinion – Four challenges we need to start thinking about
August 17, 2009.   Carol Goar


One of the hidden costs of a recession is that it stifles debate on the big problems that won’t be solved by an upturn in the business cycle.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff learned to censor himself in April. He mused that a post-recession tax increase might be necessary to get rid of the massive deficit the government is running up. It already stands at $50 billion with shortfalls of $30 billion, $13 billion and $7.3 billion projected for the next three years.

The Conservatives pounced, claiming Ignatieff would reach into taxpayers’ wallets if he became Prime Minister. A poll taken shorly afterward showed 30 per cent of Canadians were less likely to vote Liberal.

Anti-poverty activists learned to bide their time in June, when they tried to organize a campaign to hold Premier Dalton McGuinty to account on his unkept promise to launch a review of Ontario’s punitive social assistance system.

The government shrugged, safe in the knowledge that Ontarians were too preoccupied with their own finances to worry about the plight of welfare recipients.

I had my own taste of the difficulty of raising long-term issues this summer.

In a recent column, I questioned the wisdom of bringing in low-skill foreign temporary workers, when Canada needs to bolster its aging labour force with immigrants capable of contributing to the country’s economic success and committed to staying.

My email inbox filled up. One reader pointed out caustically that a country with an 8.6 per cent unemployment rate doesn’t need any immigrants. Another told me to stop propagating myths about looming labour shortages.

Ignatieff has stopped talking about fiscal policy since his unhappy brush with public opinion.

Anti-poverty activists have fallen silent since their abortive push for welfare reform, awaiting a better moment to raise their voices.

Fortunately, I don’t have to stay in step with public opinion or wait until politicians are ready to listen.

So here are four challenges I believe we need to discuss, regardless of market fluctuations:

• Our manufacturing sector is in decline. Even a robust recovery won’t revive Ontario’s once-powerful auto industry. Even a new generation of green cars won’t generate the jobs, exports and economic spinoffs the country needs.

It is true that Canada is richly endowed with natural resources, has a strong banking system and vibrant cultural sector. But none of these will fill the gaping hole left by the partial collapse of the North American carmakers.

• Our energy consumption is unsustainable. Unless we find a way to reduce the fossil fuels we burn and limit the greenhouse gases we spew into the atmosphere, we will compromise our children’s health, alienate more responsible nations and saddle future generations with an environmental disaster.

Ottawa is working on a plan to cap carbon dioxide emissions and allow companies to buy credits from cleaner energy users. But Alberta says it won’t participate. And cap-and-trade schemes have had mixed results in Europe.

• Our cities are hamstrung. Until the country’s constitutional arrangements are brought into the 21st century, they will not be able to compete globally, attract top talent or lay the foundation for a new economic order.

Amending the 142-year-old British North America Act is fiendishly difficult. But impeding the development of dynamic city-regions robs the country of its best hope of renewal.

• Our fertility rate has fallen below the population replacement level. Within two years, the growth of our labour force will be entirely dependent on immigrants. Within six years, seniors will outnumber children.

An economic recovery won’t alleviate this demographic dilemma. It will exacerbate it.

There are solutions to these problems. But they require honest debate and creative thinking. The sooner we start, the better.

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