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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Absentee Federalism (Op-Ed at The Mark)

Canada enters this new decade in dangerous territory. Our national government is missing in action – preferring partisan political calculations to governing in the national interest. A popular protest against the lengthy parliamentary shutdown is an encouraging sign of citizen engagement, but too many others remain on the sidelines.

The challenge for 2010 is to go beyond protesting the proroguing. Canadians must engage in a serious debate on where we should be going as a nation, and why it is wrong to settle for incremental progress on serious issues.

One important area that demands our urgent attention and action is our national energy and environmental policy, particularly in light of Canada’s less-than-inspiring performance at Copenhagen in December. Strong national leadership in energy and environmental matters does not mean creating new intrusions into provincial jurisdiction. It means a clear articulation of what the federal government will do within its already established jurisdiction and competency to set Canada on a more credible and cost-effective clean energy path.

Indeed, a more attentive federal government would notice that leaders in energy-intensive industries are on much the same page as the environmental community – and most Canadians – in realizing the value of a real energy plan. We need national standards to ameliorate the patchwork of federal and provincial initiatives and allow for more constructive long-term planning of clean energy development.

The national interest in guaranteeing all Canadians equitable access to long-term supplies of clean energy is certainly affected by the proposed $3.6-billion Hydro-Quebec takeover of New Brunswick Power. There can be no doubt that New Brunswick faces a serious energy security crisis, and that obtaining cheaper hydro-electricity from Quebec makes sense. But the bilateral Quebec-New Brunswick deal works against Canada’s responsibility to promote inter-provincial equity in the transmission of electricity across Canada and to the U.S. The federal government should be involved in helping New Brunswick address its clean energy challenges.

By strengthening Hydro-Quebec’s monopoly on transmission access to the U.S., the Quebec-New Brunswick hydro deal (together with expected parallel hydro deals with Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) will cement Quebec’s control of Eastern Canada’s power grid and increase Hydro-Quebec’s ability to extract a greater share of Newfoundland‘s profit from Churchill Falls.
Newfoundland has a huge new hydroelectricity project on the Lower Churchill in Labrador, including electricity from large-scale wind projects, which will eventually be available for transmission to Ontario and the eastern U.S. Quebec is competing with Newfoundland for the same American markets and has already delayed Newfoundland’s application to use Quebec transmission lines to export electricity to the U.S. for almost four years. Newfoundland, in turn, had been examining ways to transmit electricity from Labrador through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (via underwater cables), bypassing Quebec altogether.

To assuage Newfoundland’s concerns about the Quebec takeover, New Brunswick has argued that the American Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is Newfoundland’s guarantee of access to the U.S. market, since the FERC requires owners of power lines (whether Quebec or New Brunswick) to give equal access to competing power suppliers. Canadians should be shocked and dismayed that our national government is so missing in action that we now rely on American authorities to maintain the bare minimum of a Canadian economic union.

As opposition intensifies among residents of Atlantic Canada, questions will also be raised elsewhere in Canada about the equity of our complex equalization program and massive transfers of money between Ottawa and the provinces that are intended to discharge our collective commitment to ensure comparable public services across Canada. Fiscal arrangements under which a province receives billions in equalization payments while its hydro utility borrows and spends billions to control Eastern Canada’s power grid, rather than engaging in more profitable investments that could increase provincial government revenues, are problematic and divisive to say the least.

Canadians must realize that this is not just a central/eastern Canadian issue. The Quebec-New Brunswick hydro deal unquestionably engages the national interest in establishing a strong economy and a clean energy future for the benefit of all Canadians. Our national government, not foreign authorities, is responsible for matters of interprovincial trade. Our national government, not just the provinces, is responsible for strengthening the national economic union and ensuring national equity. It is time our national government stopped “going prorogue” and spoke up for Canada.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The year that was: peeling the onion, only to find…there is no onion.

At year-end, much ink is spilling over the legacy of the year of the “great recession”.

A serious assessment is next to impossible as most Canadians still struggle to catch their breath while navigating a tough recession with many family members and friends, unemployed or underemployed.

Few could describe with any certainty the exact contribution of the national government to mitigating the effects of the recession. Yes, our banking system did not melt-down, but that was the result of long-standing coherent national regulations (including strict capital ratios) – the kind of national action the current government rejects in many other areas. Any positive impact of the unprincipled hodgepodge of spending on short-term job creation and credit-easing initiatives is highly questionable, especially in light of a massive $54 billion deficit racked up in under a year.

The government spin doctors notwithstanding, what should be clear is that we did not respond to the worst economic crisis in decades within a fair and equitable framework. We did not seize the opportunity to aim high and commit to pulling out of this crisis with a greener, more sustainable economy, and an educated, more-productive workforce employed in 21st-century industries.

When we needed foresight and long-term planning to restructure the Canadian economy around industries based on innovative technological advances and our vibrant service sectors, we got government through the rear-view mirror – short-sighted subsidization, rather than transformation, of declining industries like the auto industry; failure to adapt Employment Insurance and other social security provisions to the challenging environment; and too much focus on our admittedly crumbling physical infrastructure, however important, to the detriment of our social infrastructure, notably much needed investments in scientific innovation and basic research, and better quality and available education at every level.

Then, at a time when we required, more than ever, informed and engaged citizens, Canadians appeared dangerously disengaged from national politics. Most of us ignored the superficial parliamentary melodrama that consumed official Ottawa. Our national government conveyed no sense of public purpose or narrative other than obtaining a submissive majority in Parliament. Our leaders preferred to drown us in a sea of obfuscation, as well as dampen expectations and encourage skepticism, rather than to inform and challenge us. And when this was not enough, they shut down Parliament… again.

On almost every issue – the environment, clean energy, Afghanistan, gun control, safe food, much-needed reforms of EI, pensions, health care – the government stifled intelligent open debate, attacked and intimidated those with whom it disagreed, from the National Science Advisor to the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, shrank from national action, and opted for all spin, all partisan political calculation, all of the time.

As fewer and fewer coherent national policies were adopted that advanced our ideal of a fair, compassionate and innovative country and could attract world-wide respect, we lost influence and credibility in global forums. Canada was increasingly regarded as irrelevant in global affairs. Our foreign policy was conducted on the fly, more for photo-ops than substance, revealing no strategic thinking about global approaches to the challenges we face, or about how to build up valuable alliances in the international community especially with the emerging powers of China, India and Brazil. Turning next summer’s G-8 meeting into a G-20 was an essential defensive move, but we are still no less on probation on the world stage.

Nowhere was Canada’s irrelevance more evident than at the global environment conference in Copenhagen which closed out the year. The crucible issue of our time – climate change – has been cast by our government as an irritating distraction, rather than the great moral imperative that must inspire us to act for future generations. Canada attended with no national initiatives worthy of discussion and no credible national plans for the future.

We conclude 2009 with little achieved and much that is troubling. The government record can best be summarized as peeling the onion of conservative government initiatives, only to find….there is no onion (with thanks to the brilliant satirist Jon Stewart).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Canadians Without Borders joins Twitter

Canadians without borders is a group of concerned Canadians who have come together to promote the bold and visionary national leadership needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. We are committed to building a strong Canada that can be a model for the world, creating an open, progressive society committed to justice, equality and diversity, and sustainable development.

We are united in our desire to strengthen the capacity of our national government to act clearly in the national interest and govern coherently for all Canadians in those areas requiring decisive national and international responses.

Our goal is to facilitate constructive practical debate, starting with the over-the-horizon issues that matter to us all as Canadians and as global citizens. We want to challenge all Canadians to discuss what we share, what we want to accomplish together, and what it means to be Canadian when we come from everywhere.

We will begin by following current issues that engage the national interest such as the proposed New Brunswick-Quebec hydro deal.

Please visit us at:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

National Purpose: Lost in Collaboration

Every day we meet Canadians who are embarrassed by the hyper-partisanship and mediocrity of our national politics. Our leaders rarely discuss common goals and aspirations that transcend our provincial and territorial identities. Yet it is through these undertakings that we discharge our collective and reciprocal responsibilities as citizens and build a better country.

No one at the national level has the courage to challenge Canadians to answer the fundamental question: do we still acknowledge our collective responsibility to Canadians outside our own province/territory to undertake important national initiatives with common standards and objectives?

This failure to address such a critical issue is exacerbating our serious loss of confidence in the capacity of our national government to act in the national interest, for all Canadians. We are not clear on what the federal government is engaged in or responsible for anymore.

Let’s take a concrete example. We are confronting a flu pandemic in which Canada’s chief public health officer is depending on inadequate intergovernmental agreements to provide life-saving public health information, and lacks the autonomy and clout to relocate respirators and health-care personnel from one part of the country to another.

How has this happened? Much of the answer lies in a quarter century of national politicians convincing themselves that the accommodation of provincial governments, particularly Quebec, was an essential precondition to effective national governance. As this culture of accommodation took root, references to national initiatives and standards became politically incorrect, despite their widespread support among the public. More provinces soon joined Quebec in protesting that any hint of independent national action, by definition, was an unacceptable curtailment of their freedom to act.

National policy now evolves at a glacial pace, only “in concert with the provinces” and is too often buried in a maze of federal/provincial/territorial meetings and negotiations that produce little of any lasting value. Establishing regional and provincial needs and aspirations always proves easy, but national objectives get lost in collaboration.

And what is the record of this quarter century of directionless accommodation?

The undemocratic contract-style of national governance characterized by ad hoc deals between the federal government and individual provinces and territories has simply exacerbated inequalities and inequities across the country. This dysfunctional approach has given us First Ministers Health Care Accords that are problem-plagued and light on accountability, no coherent post-secondary education strategy, utterly incomprehensible and divisive equalization formulas, and little progress creating a meaningful Canadian economic union.

No amount of wishful thinking can change the reality that premiers will rarely of their own accord act in the interest of those beyond their provincial/territorial boundaries. Nor should they. That is the job of our national representatives.

Yet our national government is missing in action. Our leaders ask little of us, and for many of the over 40% of Canadians who did not vote in the last federal election, it may be that they simply hear little from Ottawa to inspire them and revive their spirit of engagement.

But what if they were presented with bold national leadership that would speak with clarity and conviction about what we should do together, starting with issues on which consensus can be achieved with relative ease?

Just take a few examples:

Surely we can agree on the importance of effective national initiatives to guarantee food safety, and to control and eliminate toxic chemicals in the air we breathe and the water we drink.
Surely we can also work together to bring Medicare into the 21st century and assure comparable health care services and standards across Canada. We now face a patchwork of services, from physiotherapy, to autism treatment, to MRIs, along with the tragic consequences of inadequate national standards in cancer pathology.

As the United Nations’ Copenhagen Summit fast approaches, surely we can agree on the need for national direction on the environment. Without even a national cap-and-trade system, let alone intelligent discussion about a national carbon pricing scheme, our internal incoherence threatens to leave Canada on the sidelines at what may be the most significant international meeting of the decade.

Re-engaging Canadians in national politics will require bold leadership and a vigorous national debate. But re-engaging Canadians also requires that we revive Parliament as a centre for creative, constructive debate, where MPs and Senators can serve as truly national representatives and not simply as instruments of the prime minister and his extraordinarily powerful office.

To this end, we must urgently bring the Senate into the 21st century, by creating an elected body that will be an accountable and democratic forum for bringing regional interests to bear in Ottawa, especially when crafting national frameworks and standards. An effective Senate can contribute to minimizing the federal-provincial confrontations that too often preoccupy many unaccountable intergovernmental forums.

With an election looming in the not-too-distant future, we need election platforms that speak to our collective obligations to our fellow citizens, regardless of province or territory.

Canadians know that we are not as divided about the fundamentals of our great country as our politicians seem to think. We know that we are stronger when we work together.

We must come together to promote constructive practical debate.

But how do we convince our recalcitrant national leaders to first step up to the plate?

The answer lies in the irrevocably changed face of politics. Thanks to platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, text-messaging and blogging, Canadians can gather, mobilize, plan and share information in a virtual structure open to all. President Obama’s groundbreaking embrace of digital democracy, including his interactive national website, demonstrates clearly that if you provide immediate access to meaningful information, citizens will respond and become engaged.

Any Canadian political party with serious aspirations to form the next national government should sit up and take notice. The political party that directly engages Canadians in open, transparent debate, using these innovative and democratic technologies to transcend the geographic barriers and regional silos that stifle policy creativity and national initiative, will be the one that gains the support of the many “Canadians without borders” seeking inspiration and coherent leadership to confront the unpredictable national and global challenges ahead.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Op-Ed - full version with chart

Does anyone in the federal government believe in Canada anymore – in the intrinsic value of the greater entity “Canada” and the Canadian national interest? Is anyone genuinely concerned with what it means to be Canadian – those things we all, regardless of province or territory, recognize instinctively and instantaneously?

The federal government’s ability to act in the national interest is dangerously diminishing. National survival as a viable entity now appears to be in the hands of provincial politicians like Dalton McGuinty and Dwight Duncan of Ontario, and Gordon Campbell of British Columbia, who thankfully are prepared to argue the case for national action on preserving Nortel’s strategic assets in Canadian hands, reforming EI, child-care, pension reform, the economic union.

Canadians must be alerted to the seriousness of the situation. Like T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, we are being “etherized upon a table” and prepared for yet another general election. Debates are dumbed down. Everything is turned into accounting problems, too easily ignored. Taxes? Too high. Debt and deficit? Too big. Transfers to provinces? Too low … or perhaps too high. Equalization? Too little … or maybe too much.

Cast as grateful automatons in government TV advertisements, we enthusiastically grab this or that tax credit or deduction from a confusing array that does not address today’s problems and that undermines the neutrality of the income tax system. Meanwhile, little or no thought is given to effective long-term strategic thinking. Stimulus spending – from massive bailouts to tiny band-aids on big gaps in our social security net – is unprincipled, inefficient and divisive, and will adversely impact federal finances and fiscal health for years, just as the GST cuts have already done.

Inadequate and falling federal revenues mean weaker national government. That means no serious pension reforms to the CPP and OAS/GIS that would benefit the majority of Canadians with inadequate pensions. (Ironically, our taxes now fund pensioners fortunate who have been part of private companies like GM—badly run but deemed too big or too scary to fail.) Weaker national government means increasingly under-funded national programs and initiatives in Ottawa – unable to prevent a food safety or healthcare crisis, let alone address serious environmental challenges. It means no secure supply of medical isotopes. Is that our collective vision?

Canada is the most decentralized federation in the world. For some time, Ottawa’s share of total revenues has been the smallest of any central government in the developed world. More seriously, however, is the incontrovertible evidence that federal spending as a share of GDP continues its steady decline to its current level below 2/3rds the provincial level (from a high of 19.2% before 1991, to a low of 11.2% in 2007). If present trends continue, federal spending could dip below even the municipal government share of GDP within twelve years (see chart at bottom).

Eyes glaze over when such facts are laid out, but Canadians must resist and recognize this trend to fiscal weakness means our national government will be unable to fulfill its duties across the broad spectrum: national standards for social, educational and environmental programs; comparable national public services and infrastructure; strategic investments in innovation and leading-edge industries; adequate support for our troops; equity and justice for aboriginal Canadians.

Almost every aspect of our daily lives, every serious challenge, has a global dimension necessitating global cooperation and solutions. Yet Canada’s influence and effectiveness on the international stage is being undermined by our internal incoherence and diminished national strength.

It is all too easy to play to the constituency who supports lower taxes, reduced public investment, erosion of national standards, and offloading costly national responsibilities to provincial and municipal governments—already crushed under the recent recession. But this is not bold national leadership.

Bold leadership reaches out to the broader constituency who understands the value of public services and public investment and the need for strong national initiatives to provide services to the people in such a diverse and young country as Canada. Bold leadership reassures Canadians that our national government is more than a giant ATM machine, and that it has all the tools necessary to ensure a secure future for our children in a turbulent, fast-moving world.

Canadians know all too well that building a fair, compassionate and innovative society is not a destination, but a journey. Nothing can be taken for granted. Bold, visionary national leadership is vital to strengthen the bonds of solidarity among Canadians, as Canadians, and guarantee Canada significant influence in all global forums.

We are Canadians without borders, with bridges and bonds to many countries, looking forward to an exciting future. We are more than “taxpayers” of this great nation. We are “citizens” – a far nobler role. We wish to embrace our national responsibilities. We must have the opportunity in the next election to vote for a strong national government that can inspire us to look over the horizon and leave a better world for our children and grandchildren.

Monday, August 10, 2009