Put democracy and fairness at top of Liberal agenda

Posted on October 25, 2015 in Governance Debates

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials –  Justin Trudeau should turn the page on the Conservative years by addressing Canada’s democratic deficit and championing a fairer society.
Oct 23 2015.   Editorial

It’s some way off yet. But when Justin Trudeau recalls Parliament and issues his government’s first Speech from the Throne, let’s hope he breaks with tradition and focuses on the things that matter.

Sure, the new Liberal government will want to showcase its commitment to honouring campaign promises. They include a middle-class tax cut, infrastructure spending and fatter family benefits. That’s to be expected.
But the speech can and should be more than a vehicle for “sunny ways” rhetoric and a checklist of goodies. Canadians have high hopes for this government. It should aim high.

This is Trudeau’s chance to turn the page on years of Conservative misgovernance in two fundamental areas. He should address Canada’s democratic deficit, with an eye to restoring faith in Parliament and the institutions that guide the nation. And he should commit to using federal power to shape a fairer society for the 21st century. Those overarching themes should define and energize his agenda.

Make it about democracy.

Stephen Harper concentrated far too much power in his own hands and office, hobbling elected MPs and enfeebling our democratic system. He treated Parliament and its officers with contempt, kept Canadians in the dark about government actions, feuded with the Supreme Court, muzzled Tory MPs and the civil service, and abused omnibus bills to ram controversial measures into law without proper scrutiny.

There is no item on Trudeau’s agenda more important than reversing this ruinous trend and strengthening federal institutions so that they serve all Canadians, not just the government of the day.

To his credit, Trudeau has promised to give cabinet ministers more decision-making powers. To give Parliament greater opportunity to question him directly about policies. To make government data open by default. To give MPs more free votes. To empower the Parliamentary Budget Officer and other officers of Parliament to do their jobs. To strengthen the role of parliamentary committee chairs by having them elected in secret ballots and giving them more resources to study legislation. And to end the abuse of prorogation and omnibus legislation.

He also promises to respect the Supreme Court, make Statistics Canada fully independent, and unmuzzle government scientists.

Canadians will be looking to the throne speech for signs of early delivery on all these reforms. Backsliding now that the Liberals have won a comfortable majority isn’t an option, tempted though some may be to water down the promises. More than anything else, this issue will define the new government.

Make it about fairness.

Trudeau also worries that working Canadians are struggling, and many are. The country has a corrosive income gap and far too much poverty. The highest-paid 10 per cent of the workforce has pocketed almost all the wage gains in the past 30 years, leaving everyone else stuck in neutral, and falling behind. Meanwhile Statistics Canada reports that more than a million households experience “food insecurity.” Down at the food bank, it’s called hunger.

The Liberals promise to address some of this by hiking taxes on the wealthiest 1 per cent to shift $3 billion into the pockets of middle-income earners. And their progressive Canada Child Benefit will give most families more money by cancelling Tory programs that favour the affluent, or a minority of households. The new government is off to a good start. But that shouldn’t be the end of it.

Trudeau has an opportunity at the outset of his mandate to commit his party to championing a Just Society (as Pierre Trudeau might have put it decades ago), or at least a fairer and more equitable one that gives more of us a chance to get ahead. That should be the new cabinet’s mission statement.

As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out, Ottawa has the means to leverage spending in a more productive and equitable direction. The centre has identified more than $25 billion in foregone taxes and giveaways to corporations and the affluent that it argues could be put to better use. Ottawa could boost the Working Income Tax Benefit, refundable tax credits, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement and Old Age Security. Improve Employment Insurance. Support provincial poverty reduction strategies. And invest in child care, transit, housing and higher education.

What’s needed is vision, determination and a sustained whole-of-government effort to put the nation’s wealth to better, more equitable use.

Make it short.

And while the speechwriters are at it, how about putting Ottawa’s tradition of bloated throne speeches on a diet? These things have gotten tediously long-winded.

The Harper government inflicted a monster, self-congratulatory speech on the country in 2013 that took Gov.-Gen. David Johnston a full hour to read. He earned his vice-regal pay for not nodding off. As the Star wrote at the time, it was a content-lite affair, little more than a grab-bag of small-bore populist initiatives including pick-and-pay cable TV and an end to hidden credit card fees.

By contrast, the Queen delivered the British throne speech in a crisp eight minutes this year. It included significant promises: People earning the minimum wage will pay no income taxes. Free child care will be “greatly” increased. And income tax rates, sales taxes and other taxes will be frozen for five years.

The British get to the point, in short order.

But whatever the shape of Trudeau’s throne speech, democracy and fairness should be the controlling themes. People voted for change. Let’s start with these.

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