While U.S. looks ahead, we drift backwards

TheStar.com – Opinion
February 02, 2010.   James Travers

Some coincidences are too delicious. On the very morning this week that Canadians woke to find they have new, even lower greenhouse gas emission targets, Americans learned that China is surging ahead in the renewable energy race.

Before any remaining climate-change deniers fire email bullets from their grassy knolls, what follows is not primarily about climate change or even how successive federal governments failed to act. No, it’s about the difference between talk and a conversation.

Even with Parliament suspended, there’s more sound than substance here. When not disputing proroguing, politicians yammer about issues as critical to national success as a crime wave that isn’t a ripple and, yes, reforming the irredeemable Senate.

Boom times are the only time for such fatuous gassing. These are not those times.

Historically among the most blessed of nations, Canada now faces an uncertain future the Prime Minister apparently doesn’t trust Canadians to seriously consider. Just as voters were misled in the last election about the coming recession and rocketing deficits, their attention is now being dragged away from the tough decisions ahead.

It’s bad enough to hide that taxes must rise, first to pay for the record $46 billion stimulus package and then to crack what economists agree is a structural deficit. Worse is the refusal to face the looming policy choices that will ultimately determine how much of the 21st century belongs to Canada.

There’s nothing distant or abstract about those choices. Yesterday’s $3.8 trillion U.S. budget and last week’s Barack Obama State of the Union address bring the American predicament, along with its implications for Canada, closer and into focus. Along with driving trade protectionism, the symbiotic relationship between job creation and political survival is steering Washington toward solutions – education, research and productivity – that should be Ottawa priorities.

Instead the chit-chat here is purely political. Law and order, reforming the Senate and sticking to the big tax lie are all about votes and power. They have nothing whatever to do with building a national consensus on the best way forward.

In the absence of that debate, Canada is drifting backwards in sometimes small yet always faltering steps. Next month, the Canadian Council on Learning loses its federal funding. A demoralized civil service is discouraged from providing fresh alternatives to a ruling party set in its preconceived notions. Any discussion of what Canadians must do to live as well or better in the years ahead is lost in partisan bickering.

Go-ahead countries grasp that there’s more to sustainable prosperity than low taxes and a do-it-yourself social strategy. Go-ahead countries recognize opportunity even when it’s disguised as threat.

China learned that when the best it could do was to cheaply manufacture hardware for the expensive software that pushed America to the knowledge economy’s leading edge. Now Beijing is taking the decisions necessary to surf the next big wave by making the world dependent on its green technology.

Washington is hurrying to meet that foreign challenge as well as its own at home. Ottawa, locked into Canada’s hewer of wood, drawer of water traditions and trapped between eastern manufacturing and western resource economies, is not.

This country should have invested past budget surpluses in brains, innovation and infrastructure. It should now be setting objectives that will add value tomorrow.

Instead it has its head buried in the tar sands as it mumbles about things that stir emotions even as it stays silent about those that test the imagination.

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