A National Policy for the 22nd century

Posted on November 25, 2012 in Inclusion Debates

NationalPost.com – FullComment/letters
Nov 24, 2012.   Conrad Black

My comments last week about coming legally to grips with the issue of the possible secession of a province from Canada were intended to be the first part of an ambitious outline of a successor to Sir John A. Macdonald’s ambitious National Policy of 1878. This was the program that propelled him back into government for the rest of his life. (He died in 1891, aged 76, after an unequalled six elections as prime minister, and one term as opposition leader, following a decade before that as the co-leading figure of the so-called United Province of Canada.)

The 1878 program was essentially one of high tariffs to assist Canadian manufacturing, as opposed to Liberal support for freer trade with the United States. But Macdonald’s spin-team and his own polemical flourishes sketched out a comprehensive policy of a transcontinental railroad and fast steamship service off each end of the railway to Europe and the Far East; accelerated immigration and development of the under-populated West; and extensive development of harbours and other elements of what would today be called infrastructure. It was an ambitious plan, was endorsed by the voters, enacted, and did, with the bonne entente with federalist French Canadians, assure the survival and progress of the country.

As the distinguished recent biographer of Macdonald, Richard Gwyn, has pointed out, little confidence was expressed in Britain or the United States in the viability of Canadian Confederation when it was launched in 1867, and Macdonald deserves more credit than anyone else for the fact that it did prove to be a successful country. One of the general reasons for this was that he was a more capable statesman than the seven U.S. presidents who were in office during his 18 years as prime minister.

Between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the United States had no need of leaders who would do more than welcome immigration and allow the laissez faire economic system to produce astounding rates of growth and productivity increases, though punctuated, as unfettered capitalism is, by severe downturns.

Of course, the condition of Canada now is incomparably stronger, as a G-7 country that has never participated in a losing or objectively unjust war, has admirably pulled more than its weight in the great wars and contests with totalitarianism of the last century, has made biculturalism work tolerably well, been usefully present at the creation of all respectable international organizations, and been a relatively just and peaceable society, where wealth is spread more evenly yet freely than in many prosperous countries.

It is familiar and frequently galling to Canadians, including me on occasion, that Canada has what the French call the fault of our qualities: the relative absence of violence and conflict and drama makes it a less spontaneously interesting country, to itself and to foreigners, than more tumultuous and eventful and exceptional places that are more prone to extremes of heroism and depravity, or are generally more flamboyant or stylish. Most of the world’s traditionally premier nationalities would qualify in one of those categories.

Since no sane Canadian would wish to make the country more exciting by rending its social fabric or squandering its human, or natural resources, Canada can only be competitively interesting, as opposed to the rarer and more desirable quality of being very congenial to live in, compared to some other great nations, by being exceptionally and imaginatively creative as a place to live. In pursuit of this, what we should expect from our political class is a plan of action to build out on the country’s advantages. We need a program of policy excellence that transcends ghastly clichés such as a “just” or “great” society.

We should start by getting rid, once and for all, of this bunk about secession. A number of readers made the points that the recognized territories of native peoples should not be dragged out of Canada against the will of their own majorities; and that a seceding province should assume more than half of its per capita federal debt. I agree. On debt assumption, I think 75% is a reasonable number. And if a seceding province (i.e., a province that has voted by a margin of over 60% to secede on a clear referendum question) contains a recognized territory that has voted not to secede (the Cree areas of Quebec, for instance), then that territory secedes from the province and not the country. Overall, it is scandalous how reticent some prominent federalists, including some prime ministers, have been to require that any secession be a clear and decisive, democratically endorsed movement and not just the flimflam of intellectually corrupt politicians seeking to jump a rung in jurisdictional status, and the devil take the population they claim to serve.

After establishing the pre-eminent indivisibility of the country over that of any province, the next priority is to give the country a military capability capable of ensuring the nation’s writ runs throughout the land, and making Canada an appropriately well-known presence throughout the world.

Defence technology is the most efficient form of economic stimulus, and Bombardier’s jetliner project cannot be allowed to fail as A.V. Roe’s was more than 50 years ago. We had an aircraft carrier from the Second World War to the Trudeau era, and they are ideal military and disaster-relief platforms. We should retrieve that capability, which we possessed when we had barely a third of our present population.

Showing the flag is easy to mock, but not by people who lament the under-recognition of the country in the world. As a matter of the pursuit of sane arms control and the upholding of international law, Canada should privately advocate a military assault on the Iranian military nuclear program if it is not halted and subject to inspection, and should contribute escorting aircraft to such a mission by the Americans or Israelis.

Then, we must innovate in social policy. First, as I have written here before, a wealth tax to fight poverty, by which the taxpayers design and operate, like charities, methods for combating poverty. This would incentivize the wealthy and the financially most astute to reduce poverty, as the tax would decline as defined poverty declined. And let us abolish imprisonment for all non-violent offences except the briefest periods, the most egregious offenses, or the chronic recidivists. Instead of building more prisons, let us focus on community service and rehabilitation for the non-violent, and extend the system of bonding them in private sector employment where their work would be contributed, raising productivity levels. Prison is futile and destructive and hideously expensive, and is done only because it has always been done.

The contemporary world is a public policy wasteland. The world is waiting for some innovative leadership. To borrow from Theodor Herzl and Ronald Reagan: “If not now, when, and if not us, who?”

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