If we let partisanship steer us, we’re in for a train wreck

TheGlobeandMail.com. – Opinions – The basic social fabric that constitutes Canada will be on the table in 36 months
Published: August 12, 2010.   Hugh Segal

Efforts at predicting elections or their outcomes diminish Canada at a time when a more serious question looms: How do we best use our relatively good economic performance since the 2008 credit meltdown to build a stronger economy for Canadians?

On the issues that matter, innovation, not partisanship, will underline opportunities for progress. Right-wing think tanks will argue for less government, lower taxes and reduced regulation; left-wing competitors will argue for the opposite. The problem with this particular mix of perspectives is that it tends to paralyze, rather than energize, prospects for innovation.

Of some oncoming trains, we can be certain – their whistles can be heard by all but the most purposefully deaf. Federal/provincial social transfer agreements lapse in 36 months, affecting health care, social welfare and postsecondary education. What will replace them? Demographic and new-technology pressures make much of the current model of health-care financing unsustainable. How do we address that? The costs of poverty, which are borne by taxpayers who are not poor, but who face increased tax burdens from health-care bills, penal institutions, and justice and education systems made more expensive by the knock-on real costs of poverty and its pathologies, continue to burden and render less productive the wealth-creating part of our economy.

The convergence of these oncoming trains is, in an open and pluralist democracy, an opportunity. Only the deeply defensive or excessively partisan or ideological would dismiss these trains as a threat. Domestic policy development has never faced a more compelling chance for a new beginning.

For example, we are in a classic “path dependency” rut with poverty – governments go back and forth in the same policy rut simply because it is easier. Ten per cent of our fellow Canadians live beneath the poverty line, a percentage that has not changed for decades. Welfare is debilitating, overextended and traps far more people than are lifted out. Recent bipartisan Senate reports on rural and urban poverty have called on governments for new thinking based on a basic income floor that obviates welfare and provides a measure of economic-base security that diminishes both poverty and its more expensive burdens on the rest of society.

Equalization has become a distortion of its original purpose. It is in serious need of innovative adjustment through a more creative, open approach to the federal-provincial fiscal negotiations in 2013-14. These coming negotiations, with their impact on how we create and use wealth in our society, are fundamental to the character of Canadian federalism itself. If parliaments and legislatures mean anything at all, then beginning this fall, they should be the places where such debates take place. They need not be sterile partisan exchanges, but can be forums for new ideas, fresh initiatives and open, thoughtful engagement. Governments and opposition parties have nothing to fear here, except, as FDR once reminded us, fear itself. Business, community and labour groups should engage as well. This concerns every Canadian.

There will be a contrary view. Finance officials in the provinces and Ottawa, ministerial and opposition partisan advisers will caution against debate, urging policy-making by stealth with as little public engagement as possible. Ideas, openness and innovation are the enemy of their own self-reverential bureaucratic or narrow partisan plans. There may even be some in the media who look askance at such discussions because an open exchange on practical ideas is less “blood on the rug” newsworthy than ideological skirmishes or partisan excess.

When the innovation of universal health insurance came out of its CCF-NDP roots in mid-1960s Saskatchewan, it became national because a Conservative federal prime minister (John Diefenbaker) commissioned a national study (the Hall Report) that assessed the national implications of the Saskatchewan initiative, which a subsequent Liberal prime minister (Lester Pearson) received and later implemented in a minority parliament and with premiers of all affiliations. This was Canadian federalism and social policy at its best. All parties and levels of government had their say, and a national commitment and program was born. As Canadians of all and no political affiliations, we have the right to aspire to no less today.

Hugh Segal is a Conservative Senator from Ontario.

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