Dreaming and thinking: the Liberals need both

Posted on in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – The new Liberal government has no shortage of visionary ideas, but to make the most of them will require strategic ingenuity.
Nov 05 2015.   By: Thomas S. Axworthy

The novelist Toni Morrison has wise words for the new Liberal government: “As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.” The first days of a new government are intoxicating: it is especially so when, as today, the new government symbolizes generational change. As Morrison advises, Justin Trudeau and the women and men of his government should be motivated by and never forget the dreams that inspired them to run for office.

And dreams they have aplenty: William Watson, the noted economist from McGill, has worked through the 88 pages of the Liberal platform and counted 325 commitments, some grand but vague such as embracing the Kelowna Accord for Aboriginals “in a way that meets today’s challenges,” others specific like “$25 million per year for restored youth service programs.”

But with 325 commitments, it is equally evident that the new government will need thinking of a high order: it will be necessary to create a strategic prime ministership in which Justin Trudeau’s time is allocated to the three or four priorities he most wants and needs to achieve. A second tier of critical issues (30 to 40) should be allocated to ministers and monitored, not run, by the centre. And a third tier which require a longer-range perspective, in which parliamentary committees, parliamentary task forces, and formal inquiries can do good agenda-setting work. Sequencing, resource allocation, and implementation are crucial to policy impact. Rhetoric about values is the poetry, street-level implementation is the prose, but you need both to get your story across.

In the first six months of a strategic prime ministership, opportunities must be seized upon, fatal mistakes avoided, and enough wins achieved to demonstrate competence. The prime opportunity to be seized is that Canadians are demanding a return to civility and respect in the way the nation’s business is conducted.

Opposition parties are opponents, not enemies. Members of Parliament are representatives of the people, not ciphers to read notes prepared by the unelected minions of the PMO. Measures to restore the central role of Parliament, such as making the Parliamentary Budget Office truly independent should be the first order of business. Debate, inquiry and diversity of views improve policy, not hinder it. These democratic reforms must be done early, before the hypnotic attraction of power lures too many of the new decision-makers into bad habits.

Restoring a new ethos to Ottawa also involves reaching out, and here Trudeau has already made a good start by inviting the premiers to join him at the upcoming Paris climate conference. This is a country bursting with talent. One resource not to be overlooked is Canada’s former prime ministers. Collectively, they are a resource that should be used for the good of the country and Trudeau would gain much by consulting them on issues they know best.

Fatal mistakes to be avoided include losing sight of the primacy of the economy and forgetting that implementation blunders can ruin a government. Trudeau had a laser-like focus on the economy and the middle class during the recent campaign: it is a discipline he must continue to employ in government. The motor of the Canadian economy in recent years — the oil and gas industry — is sputtering, and new motors must be revved up — the Atlantic Gateway, Quebec’s Plan Nord, the Energy East pipeline for Alberta, competitive taxes for Ontario’s manufacturing base, Pacific trade opportunities for B.C., broadband internet access in the North, etc. When he faces the electorate in the next election, Canadians will ask themselves if they are better off than they were four years ago. The answer must be a resounding yes.

Another mistake to be avoided, which happens to all governments, but especially to new ones, is to ignore the primacy of intelligent administration and implementation. The long-gun registry, for example, was a sensible preventative measure to curtail violence, but it began with administrative blunders, huge cost overruns, and never recovered. Today, Canada is committed to bringing in 25,000 refugees, a complex and difficult task. This will require administration of the highest order. Implementation progress should be a regular item on the cabinet agendas.

To achieve their dreams, Liberals have to make government work better. Trudeau has articulated the dream. Now the harder task awaits of turning aspirations into results.

Thomas S. Axworthy, Senior Fellow of Massey College, was principal secretary to prime minister Pierre Trudeau from 1981 to 1984.

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