observations and opinion
Questions nobody seems to be asking, or answering. Part 1
Canada’s diverse, free citizenry is bound together by civic norms, an ethos of egalitarianism and strong public and private institutions. It offers the opportunity to prosper with the responsibility to share. Why isn’t anyone talking about that?
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The first week of this elongated election campaign focused on the individual party leaders, specifically their ability or willingness to verbally joust in what is called “a debate.” For Prime Minister Harper it was a chance to practice defending himself. For Mr. Mulcair it was a chance to practice smiling. For Mr. Trudeau, the opportunity to demonstrate he has been practicing for the debate. For Ms. May, it was a demonstration that having nothing to lose means you can actually demonstrate your active intelligence.
All of this horserace stuff is fine, but as we are electing 338 MPs who will in some combination form a government this October, perhaps we ought to actually think about what the government does. Or what it could do. Perhaps we ought to ask the question: what does the country need?
A first answer appears simple: more money. The provinces and now the federal government too, are running on growing deficits. They spend more than they make, a lot more. Whether we support every government program there is, or want even more programs, it is impossible to have them for long without raking in more cash. An alternative view of the first answer is this: less public spending. Or perhaps, smarter public spending, within our means. Governments need to get better at leveraging what they spend to produce better results.
Looking at Canada from a demographic standpoint, we see an aging population with a big appetite for consumption. Where will they get the money to keep spending, as they have the last 40 or 50 years? The answers here seem to be, by not retiring and by saving more for retirement when it comes. What are we doing about pensions and long term income security for the aged?
Of course, with the end of mandatory retirement in most places and the pressing need to keep working, older Canadians will hang onto their jobs. Which poses a barrier to other people taking those jobs. How do we create real opportunity for young people?
Younger Canadians facing a lean job market are staying longer in school. This means they are accumulating more student debt, while accruing less personal wealth. The upside of all that education is a very high standing (#2 in the world, according to the Conference Board) in overall educational achievement but we are weak in some key areas: graduating PhDs, engineers and scientists. We are big on “equity” in education but more people being average doesn’t make more people brilliantly strong.
And where will all these well educated young people work, so they can earn, pay their own way and start replenishing the public coffers? Brian Mulroney, a rather successful politician at one time, said his three main concerns in office were “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He also said that a job was the best social program. Canada’s relatively poor results in producing scientists and engineers is partly a cultural issue but also an economic one. We need businesses that are focussed on R&D, that create products and services which incentivize more technical educations. That would make us more competitive internationally too. How do we steer our students towards science instead of feel-good courses?
Depressingly, the Canadian economy still seems fixated on digging holes and pulling stuff out of the ground. Mining is a good business and we are really good at it, but even if it’s sustainable, it is cyclical and it is not a well-rounded economic agenda. We are cursed with the blessings of natural wealth and, like the indolent heir to a fortune, our main education has been in spending the inheritance. But great fortunes eventually run out.
Once we have stopped whining about the declining price of commodities, when will we start thinking about our dangerous dependence on them? Who is saying what about diversifying Canadian industry and channeling it into something that might survive the 21st century?
Related perhaps to how we historically produce wealth, is how we historically produce waste: Canadians pollute more, per capita, than almost anyone on Earth. Part of that is geographic (we drive long distances) but that’s an explanation, not a justification. Canada has a “C” grade in environmental standards and that is just embarrassing, or should be. And no, it’s not because Harper doesn’t like the Kyoto Accord. It’s because of how we live and work. Does anyone have a serious plan to make us a cleaner country?
The Conference Board rates Canada highly (#10 in the world) for health measures (longevity, care, etc). That’s great but a larger population of retirees sends in fewer taxes while consuming more in public resources. Nobody devours medical and institutional care resources the way senior citizens do. How do our politicians plan to pay for the massive cost of health care?
These bread and butter, domestic concerns dovetail into international issues. First up is immigration: aside from using it to bribe ethnic groups to vote for them, how do our politicians intend to manage the relentless demand from foreigners to move here? Are we doing this well? Can we manage immigration to help make us smarter and richer?
Related to that is the Mosaic Question. In the 1970s multi-culturalism became fashionable, with people hanging on to their ethnic traditions while becoming Canadian. This works so long as there is a common commitment to shared civic norms, but immigration (and fundamentalism) is straining that. Quebec’s “Charter of Values” was a tacky way to wedge voters into being anti-immigrant, but there are legitimate questions about whether it is “Canadian” to be clad in a burqa or chador. Does anyone have a plan for entrenching the civic norms of Canadian heritage, without targeting minorities in an ugly, racist way?
Canada is a wealthy, safe and lucky country. Its riches extend beyond the material to the cultural: the rule of law is deeply rooted here. Equity and human rights are strong. Civilian rule is unquestioned. We have traditionally invested our prestige, treasure and muscle in supporting democracies under threat, or in serving as peacekeepers. Despite some sniping about our foreign policy no-one can seriously contend that Canada is not still a highly respected nation.
Many believe that the democratic, pluralist world faces a real threat from tyrannical, fundamentalist movements. Canada had two soldiers murdered, on its own soil, by Canadian miscreants enamored of the Islamic State. Some think we need to pull back from our engagement against ISIL while some believe a deeper and more violent military thrust against the Caliphate is inevitable. What is the most realistic view of the Mid-East situation and the threat of fundamentalist Islamism? What do the parties propose to do about it, other than attack each other’s incoherent positions?
There are other questions to be asked, which I may get to later in the campaign. But I finish here with one: what are we doing to promote the unique Canadian brand of patriotism and pluralism?
Canada’s diverse, free citizenry is bound together by civic norms, an ethos of egalitarianism and strong public and private institutions. It offers the opportunity to prosper with the responsibility to share. Yet like everyone else in the developed world, aren’t we are becoming “consumers” first, lining up at the entitlement buffet (that goes for the rich and the poor. Who feels more entitled than the rich, after all)? We have to give back, to expect anything.
Which political leader, if any, will try to inspire us to sacrifice? Not necessarily by paying more taxes, but by investing our loyalty, time and effort in the project of Canada? There are ten thousand ways to build and sustain a great society. First, you have to believe the society is great. Then you have to commit yourself to honouring it, through words but also through work. If a true leader does anything, surely it must be to point the way.