Canadians have traditionally looked to the Liberal Party of Canada for a sense that Canada means something more than the sum of its parts. Canadians know that a collection of provinces and territories, without bold and visionary national leadership, is not a real country.
Under the leadership of the Pearson and Trudeau governments in particular, we pulled together as a nation to strive to provide the essentials of Canadian citizenship – clean air, clean water, safe streets, our parks, healthcare, maternity benefits and parental leave, pensions, public education, equality of opportunity, and adequate income and other supports. In this process, we learned that when we all contribute to and share the benefits of good healthcare, we are all better off. We learned that the best way to build the bonds of compassion, empathy and social solidarity is by having our children attend great public schools in an environment that reflects the diversity in society around us. Most importantly, we learned that the measure of a great society and nation is how well we collectively take care of and lift up the weakest members, and that preserving the dignity of our neighbour preserves the dignity of us all.
But what we may not have learned is that building a fair and compassionate society is not a destination, but a journey. The fight for greater equality and justice never ends. Nothing should be taken for granted.
Recent national governments have brought an end to that sense of forward momentum and nation-building. First, the Mulroney Conservative governments downsized and outsourced the federal government to consultants, shifted power and initiative to the provinces, and made the advocacy of national programs and standards politically unacceptable. Our national government became dangerously weakened under leadership that seemed more interested in pandering to parochialism and partisanship, than governing in the national interest.
Then, successive Liberal national governments, and now the Harper Conservative governments, have been unable or unwilling to reverse the public perception that national programs, standards and initiatives, and bold national leadership, are not a good thing. So for example, national childcare, announced with much fanfare by the Liberals in 1993, finally made it into a very loose province-by-province arrangement some 12 years later, only to be promptly abandoned by Harper’s first Conservative minority government. A serious proposal for a national securities regulator, that was ready before Mulroney’s Conservatives were elected in 1984, has since languished in obscurity. The 1993 Agreement on Internal Trade intended to reduce barriers to goods, services and people across the country, was neutered by the provincial governments, such that we are now more disconnected and dysfunctional than the European Union. National environmental policies were not (until recently) championed by the national political parties, but were promoted more through citizen activism (legal and otherwise) which today perversely underpins both the Green Party and the election of another Harper Conservative government. And the Harper Conservative government has now become adept at setting province against province while unwinding the federal government, and slicing and dicing Canadians into those, for example, who have kids playing soccer or music, and those who do not, with useless boutique tax credits which erode the neutrality of our tax system.
National action - from food safety, to clean air and water, to removing toxins in our environment - has, at best, been anemic, incoherent and after-the-fact. At worst, it has placed the public in jeopardy. Medicare is less and less a national program and symbol drawing us together, and more and more an uneven patchwork of medically-required services across provinces, with tragic consequences as in the case of cancer pathology in Newfoundland. Our physical infrastructure is dangerously decayed and public transit is totally inadequate everywhere. And the widening inequality of income and wealth among Canadians is totally unacceptable.
We now have the Council of the Federation, composed of provincial and territorial leaders, starting to sound prime ministerial. After the recent federal election, Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia, announced that all premiers now want all barriers to the free flow of goods, services and people within the country to be ended by next spring. The provincial governments are also busy in the international arena, including trade visits to China - without any federal participation. And Quebec, not the federal government, spearheads negotiations for an EU-Canada free trade deal. What does all this provincial activity mean? Sadly, it means a vacuum of leadership at the national level, and very little chance of any collective coherence emerging from the clouds of provincial rhetoric.
Yet, we cannot wait another 15 or 25 years for a national securities regulator or an effective economic union and full mobility of all workers across Canada.
We cannot wait to implement an effective national climate change program, including significant progress towards renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency, and huge national investments in infrastructure and public transit.
We cannot wait any longer for quality child care, early childhood education and expanded flexible parental leave.
We cannot wait any longer to end the shameful third world conditions endured by aboriginal Canadians in so many reserve communities, and to address the shortcomings of Canada’s relationship with its First Nations.
Finally, we cannot wait any longer for effective action to protect Canadians from dangerous toxins in the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.
Under Mr. Harper’s Conservatives, the federal government is missing in action. We need effective concrete national action and inspiration now. Canadians need the Liberal Party of Canada to return to its role of providing Canadians with a clear choice. Do we want the incredible shrinking national government of the Conservative Party with the relentless downloading of responsibilities and fiscal room to the provinces? Or do we want bold visionary national leadership that gives us a sense of national purpose and pride, and sees national government as an instrument of the people, not as a business to be downsized?
Let us have vigorous national initiatives that say that we believe that every Canadian should have the opportunity for the best education and training possible to assure meaningful work and ongoing employment.
Let us have national leadership that inspires us to build a Canada where achievement is measured by our commitment and responsibility to our fellow citizens, not by our level of consumption, a Canada where we live intelligently, not wastefully, and ask as much of ourselves as we ask of our governments.
Let us establish a national renewable energy standard for every utility in the country, and require that all utilities get paid for how much gas and electricity consumers save, rather than what they use. Some provinces are already starting to do this, but if the federal and provincial governments can agree on how to achieve such national standards, with federal incentives as necessary, this will help create the domestic demand and collective national effort that will really propel us forward as a country.
Let us stop weakening the fiscal position of the federal government. Among other things, take steps to help businesses such as by harmonizing the GST and all the provincial sales taxes, and encourage significant investments in clean energy and energy savings that will modernize and save many jobs in our traditional sectors like pulp and paper, and create jobs in the industries of the future.
Let us once and for all put an end to the sterile arguments about equalization and transfer payments to the provinces, which turn national politics into a complex and excruciatingly boring accounting problem. Instead, establish new arrangements administered by a non-partisan commission that will examine all transfers between federal and provincial governments – health, education, housing, equalization – and ensure we achieve the fundamental goal that all Canadians have access to comparable public services regardless of where they live.
Let us bring Medicare into the 21st century and establish a non-partisan national health commission to ensure that the same medically-necessary services are available to all Canadians, from services for autism to physiotherapy to MRIs.
Let us have a proactive consumer protection commission that is ahead of the curve and inspires confidence, not fear and confusion.
The 2008 federal election failed miserably to excite Canadians. The few who did vote did so with little enthusiasm or sense of national purpose or pride. There was no appeal to our better selves to pull together as we enter uncertain economic times, nothing to add some energy and passion back into national politics and government, nothing to remind us that we are stronger when we act together as Canadians and share in national projects and endeavours.
Certainly a federal government involves negotiation and compromise. But negotiation and compromise is nothing without bold and visionary national leadership – leadership that engages all Canadians in the greater project of building something unique: the most cosmopolitan nation in history committed to justice, equality, diversity, and a significant leader in our global community in the pursuit of a more peaceful, equitable and secure world.
We are Canadians without borders, with bridges and bonds to many countries, looking forward to an exciting future. We want to embrace our national responsibilities that are integral to our citizenship in this great nation. Canadians must have the opportunity next time 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.