For more ideas for Canada:

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Part 6: more issues needing bold national leadership

(This is Part 6 of "The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?" The previous parts are found below.)

Open, Transparent and Accountable Government

The election of Barack Obama demonstrates how the face of politics has irrevocably changed. Thanks to technologies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, text-messaging and blogging, the traditional political party is now obsolete as supporters gather, mobilize, plan and share information in a virtual structure open to all.

But President Obama has not stopped there – his groundbreaking national interactive website,, continues to build on the momentum gathered during his election and transition period. Among other things, offers immediate access to meaningful information on all current and planned legislative, regulatory and executive initiatives of the President, and facilitates connections via Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, Vimeo, iTunes, and MySpace. The openness this fosters is invaluable, despite the challenging constraint to limit comments to 500 characters or less.

Any Canadian political party with serious aspirations to form the next national government should sit up and take notice. The political party that adopts the national website approach to open transparent government will be more successful in transcending the geographic barriers and regional silos that constrain policy creativity and national initiative, and has the best chance of establishing a broad base of support among Canadians.

Employment Insurance reform

The next Parliament must undertake a complete reform of all aspects of Employment Insurance which is not operating as a useful safety net for the unemployed. Too many people have paid in and find that they are not eligible. The increasing numbers of part-time workers and the self-employed cannot participate. The complex patchwork of entry requirements across the country makes no sense with today’s rising unemployment. Job training provisions do not work well. And even for those who are eligible, benefits are exhausted quickly. Soon, we will witness an increase in Canadians on income assistance/welfare, straining already stretched provincial and municipal budgets.

In sum, the national EI program does not fulfill its basic national objectives – that of providing adequate income protection, economic stabilization and the preservation of the dignity of the unemployed. There needs to be national standards, where appropriate, as well as more effective training. We should implement innovative steps like wage insurance for those who suffer a drop in income, particularly while retraining, and increasing premium rates during times of low unemployment to tide us over when joblessness does rise.

Maternity and parental leave benefits, currently part of EI, need expanding and updating as well. Although some suggest that these benefits should not logically be part of EI (Don Drummond), they cannot be removed from the EI national program unless there is an agreed alternative national program in place. We must not forget that these benefits ended up under the EI umbrella in the first place because provinces were unwilling to collaborate sufficiently on a separate national program.

As the federal Conservatives and Liberals work on EI reform this summer, the premiers are yet again taking the initiative and putting forward proposals that must be considered. The premier of British Columbia has suggested the possibility of returning to a variation of the cost-shared approach to welfare as a way of easing what is expected to be an intolerable burden on provincial budgets as the unemployed exhaust benefits. He has also joined with western premiers to ask that eligibility for EI be reduced to three categories – urban, rural and remote.

Pension reform

The next Parliament must address the looming pension crisis. Currently 6 out of 10 Canadians have no private pension and only inadequate Canada Pension Plan benefits. Yet, as taxpayers, we are all picking up the tab for badly run private pension plans (e.g. GM).

Several models could be considered:
- expand the CPP – our largest and most efficient pension arrangement in the country – on a voluntary or mandatory basis so that it can gradually replace the underperforming RRSP industry,

- provide for voluntary employer and employee payments into supplemental CPP administered by the CPP Investment Board, like the regional plan now being developed by Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan for private sector workers.

A range of related issues must also be considered. One example would be to include provisions to allow women, who stay home to raise children, to continue to contribute to CPP during those years. A second example would be a national disability insurance benefit modeled on the Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and fully integrated with the CPP disability payments, the provincial Workplace Safety and Insurance Board and any other disability income programs.

Post-Secondary Education

Canada has no national coherence in post-secondary education (PSE): the annual education report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in October 2007 noted that Canada was unable to report figures for two-thirds of the information gathered by the other 39 countries covered in the survey. Dr. Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council of Learning, a non-governmental organization on lifelong learning, decries the fact that we do not know where the substantial amount of money transferred for PSE purposes is going. In contrast, the EU, Australia, Germany, Britain, and New Zealand, all establish nation-wide goals and objectives for their PSE institutions and align funding with national priorities.
Canada also lacks an effective national strategy to assure the full-range of PSE options to all qualified students. Twenty years ago, Canadian universities received $2000 more per student than their U.S. counterparts, but now receive $2000 less. Since 1993, Canada has won only 3 Nobel prizes, compared to California’s 18 since 1995.

Bold national leadership is required to implement a national strategy for PSE to ensure that our colleges and universities are up to the challenge and measure up to our competition, as well as implement an integrated system of grants, loans and credits to ensure talented students of families with financial difficulties are assured access to PSE institutions.

Public funding for two years of community college
Serious consideration must be given to whether the federal government should publicly fund two years of community college since so many twenty-first century jobs will require at least a couple of years of community college. Easy availability of ongoing community college training for employees in some U.S. states has proven an attractive incentive to location and expansion of leading edge technology companies.

Research and development
We must also find ways once and for all to increase the abysmally low levels of research and development by Canadian businesses, and provide enough committed long-term public finance for basic scientific research that will foster free-ranging scientific innovation. This will spur everything from medical breakthroughs on cancer and the environmental causes of ill-health, to discoveries of greater energy efficiency and waste reduction (like the process of separating oil from water, discovered by the 2009 Polanyi research grant recipient), to new batteries that store electricity for transportation, wind and solar generation, safer cell phone technology, and the elimination of toxins in our food, our water, and our air.

Other Questions

The foregoing eclectic discussion is designed to sketch out the great scope of possibilities available to a reinvigorated national Parliament under new leadership. And there are countless topics equally in need of national attention and serious debate:

Taxes: As we face a growing deficit and debt, can we have intelligent national debate on the need for adequate new revenues to pay for investment and public services, not the least of which is our obligation to ensure the needs and concerns of aboriginal Canadians? Besides GST adjustments (including harmonization with the remaining provincial sales taxes) and a possible carbon levy, we need to consider possibilities as varied as a financial transactions tax – even a minimal 0.25% levy on the sale or transfer of stocks, bonds and financial assets, would be progressive and relatively lucrative – as well as a tax on soft drinks promoted by a few American states.

Child Poverty: On the social safety net front, could we take at least a first step to remove children from social assistance benefit structures as part of reducing poverty in Canada? This goal would require streamlining and enhancing the four federal-provincial income assistance programs – the Child Tax Benefit, the National Child Benefit Supplement, the Universal Child Care Benefit and the various provincial child benefits.

Senate reform: Could we examine serious reform to the Senate of Canada with vigorous public debate and input, not Mr. Harper’s reform by stealth? A reformed Senate could be designed to give provinces a stronger voice in the development of national standards and objectives in the parliamentary centre, rather than shouting too often confrontationally from the fringes through the Council of the Federation.

Canada’s global influence: Can we have intelligent national debate over bolstering Canada’s global influence within the G-20 and other global forums? We should pay close attention to the observations of former diplomat Gordon Smith, that Canada is fortunate to be part of the G-20, scraping in with barely 2% of global GDP or population (our land mass does not count). At the recent G-20 summit in London, Britain consigned Canada to the second tier in terms of communications strategy (which perhaps explains why our Prime Minister was ‘in the loo’ during the official photo of the leaders). And Canada should really not be part of the G-8 today – by some measures, Canada and Italy should logically be replaced by China and India, except that China and India are now holding separate BRIC summits with Russia and Brazil as of June 2009. Among other things, as host of the G-8 summit in 2010, Smith suggests that Canada take vigorous steps to transform it into a G-20 Summit in order to be able to play a central role in reshaping global rules and institutions.


The critical issue, even if any of the suggestions for national leadership and initiative set out in this series of blog entries are pursued, is: will Canadians’ interest in the governance of our country actually be revived? Quebecers are particularly disinterested after years of Bloc Québécois dominance and what La Presse editor André Pratt calls ‘separating without separation’. Polls show that 60% of Quebecers still believe provincial demandeurs, both federalist and separatist, that Quebec needs more provincial autonomy in fields like culture, health, higher education and language despite the fact that Quebec has near complete provincial control of these fields. It will take exceptional effort to persuade Quebecers to consider the Canadian national interest again.

The future of Canada depends more than ever on new bold and visionary national leadership that understands both the poetry and practice of politics. We need inspiration to revive our collective imagination once again, and pursue national initiatives for the benefit of all Canadians.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Part 5: Climate Change Policy

(This is Part 5 of "The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?" The previous parts can be found below.)

Canada has had four different climate change plans in the last decade but no progress. And Mr. Harper’s leadership on the issue is anything but bold, transparent or even remotely constructive in bringing Canadians together.

Mr. Harper silenced any intelligent discussion during the last election, producing an anemic plan for intensity targets applicable only to large industrial emitters that allows carbon dioxide emissions to rise with production levels. His recent budget lacked any serious environmental focus, especially with respect to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Mr. Harper has sat on the sidelines with respect to a carbon tax, lending no support to forward-thinking proposals like those adopted in British Columbia last year – and successfully defended through the recent BC provincial election. In the absence of national leadership, regional tensions, real or imagined, are allowed to simmer – those Canadians who express legitimate concern over the environmental impact of the oil sands development are subtly cast as whiners merely opposed to Alberta’s success in oil and gas. And while Quebec forges ahead with locking in huge exports of hydro-electric power to the United States, there is no national discussion on the feasibility of an east-west smart electricity grid.

The federal government is so missing in action that Ontario and Quebec have now joined Manitoba and British Columbia to extend caps on CO2 emissions beyond large industrial emitters as part of the California-led Western Climate Initiative.

Harper has recently taken minimal steps toward convergence with the Americans – proposing a weak cap-and-trade system that kicks in only in 2011, and comparable fuel economy standards for vehicles. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. Canada has lost all credibility on climate change not just in North America, but also on the global stage. We simply have nothing convincing to say, even for the vitally important Copenhagen Summit in November.

Ironically, just as we get closer to a cap-and-trade system, both Canadian and international business leaders are realizing how complex the system is, especially when compared to a carbon tax or levy that is efficient and fair – applies to all emitters – and yields substantial revenues to reduce other taxes or fund technologies.

The reality is that a national carbon pricing system is essential if we want to get anywhere near acceptable targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases by mid-century. Leaders in the oil, gas, pipeline, energy, and retail and electricity industries have, from time to time, called on Ottawa to implement a national energy policy – not to be confused with the controversial NEP policy of a quarter-century ago. A national energy policy to meet the climate change challenge means: an unambiguous statement of Canada’s national interests and objectives with respect to energy, clear national regulations, infrastructure investments, and a national strategy to help corporations to map out an energy development agenda and be able to prioritize initiatives including research, development and training.

Business leaders understand the need for strong national initiative in this critical area – not to create new intrusions into provincial jurisdiction, but to ameliorate the incoherence of the patchwork of provincial and federal laws, and ease the costs faced by the companies and the uncertainties faced by their shareholders.

If we finally succeed in having an intelligent debate over a carbon pricing system initiated by the federal government, lessons will be learned. Any system must be fully coordinated with provincial programs like those in B.C. and Quebec, and the revenue raised should be remitted back to the province in which it is generated for other green initiatives and technology investments. (A serious problem with the carbon pricing proposal in the Liberal Party Green Shift of 2008 was its entanglement with an anti-poverty initiative.)

Vigorous national leadership is also needed to assist our cities – which use at least 50% of all energy in Canada – to improve energy efficiency and energy conservation, and to develop integrated energy systems involving on-site renewable energy, district energy and combined heat and power. Related initiatives include massive investments in expanding public transit, rebuilding municipal infrastructure, and finally moving forward on high speed rail links.

To be continued. Part Six will wind up this series with an eclectic discussion of a few more issues in need of bold national leadership.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Part 4: The Canadian Economic Union

(This is Part 4 of "The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?" The previous parts can be found below.)

Reviving the national government’s ability to take the lead in critical areas will take patience. For one thing, most of the provinces need persuading that the national interest is more than the sum of their activities. Whoever is the next prime minister will have to convincingly articulate the need for specific national action as part of the election platform. Since all Canadians vote for both levels of government, a prime minister who can obtain a clear mandate from the voters will have more power to negotiate a satisfactory federal role with provincial governments.

The Canadian economic union is one area that requires urgent national attention and action. The 1995 inter-provincial Agreement on Internal Trade – intended to reduce barriers to goods, services, and people – is so weak that we are now more disconnected and dysfunctional than the European Union. In fact, the European Union refuses to conclude a free trade agreement with Canada unless provinces and municipalities agree to sign on and not to discriminate against the EU in their procurement policies.

Our internal barriers to trade, especially local procurement preferences, mean that our opposition to the Buy American policies in the U.S. rings hollow to Americans who face what they interpret as Buy Canadian policies. In 1994 the provinces refused to agree to liberalize procurement under NAFTA Article 1024, or to sign the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement, with the result that Canadians have been excluded from government procurement with 40 American states including New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania, for some time. Mr. Harper’s recent proposal to reopen NAFTA and include local procurement as a way to prevent Buy American policies, is simply a diversion to avoid a clear national initiative on the economic union and serious discussions with the provinces.

The Council of the Federation, composed of provincial premiers and territorial leaders, recently acknowledged the need to break down all barriers to the free flow of people, goods, services and capital across Canada. Indeed British Columbia and Alberta have implemented a successful bilateral economic union. But the federal government must take its own legislative action to implement the Canadian economic union and guarantee compliance across Canada. The need for unambiguous national action must be an integral part of the campaign platform of the next prime minister, and on the agenda of the first post-election First Ministers Conference (the group that includes the federal government).

Strengthening the Canadian economic union by eliminating all barriers to the mobility of goods, services, capital and people among provinces logically includes the establishment of a single national securities regulator in the capital markets. The global financial crisis and turbulent capital markets have made this step all the more urgent.

Recent commentary has noted the strength of Canada’s banking system – thanks to coherent national regulation by the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions, the Bank of Canada and the Department of Finance. That same positive outlook does not extend to Canada’s capital markets, which have been adversely affected by the failures in the U.S. and international markets. With 13 different securities regulators, Canada lacks coherence in international forums and discussions, and is unnecessarily exposed to market risks and instability.

As early as August 2007, inadequate securities oversight resulted in freezing $32 billion in toxic asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP), something that has seriously impacted the legitimate commercial paper market, in spite of completing – in late 2008 – a tortuously negotiated agreement to unfreeze the ABCP. Although the Bank of Canada was vigorously involved in this final agreement – and has stepped up its capital market expertise and surveillance role in monitoring systemic risks in the financial system, there is no substitute for effective national regulation and oversight.

The stability of the financial system in Canada has never been more important. There are huge advantages to the establishment of a Canadian securities regulator. For example, the cost of raising capital will be lowered by eliminating the current multiple filing requirements. Investors will have greater protection through a more effective enforcement process and a single independent adjudicative tribunal. Canada’s competitive advantage will be increased and we will be able to play an important global leadership role in coordinating international action to end the global credit crunch and financial instability in the capital markets

Mr. Harper has taken steps toward the establishment of a National Securities Commission in Budget 2009. He has proposed a Council of Ministers consisting of the federal Minister of Finance and a Minister designated by each participating jurisdiction, to act as a forum to discuss the development of securities policy and the ongoing administration of the system. This is clearly an area where provinces are reluctant to cede their dominance, and compromises will be necessary on all sides. But the Harper proposal to give provincial ministers (representing a majority of the provinces and the population of Canada) the power to veto amendments to the federal legislation may be going too far in compromising the national interest.

To be continued. Part Five will deal with climate change and clean energy policy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Part 3: Policy areas that should be arms-length from politicians and parliament

(This is Part 3 of "The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?" The previous parts can be found below.)

At the same time as we rebuild the capacity of the public service and our elected representatives to better serve the national interest, certain policy areas will require some institutional distance from politicians. These are (1) amendments to the Criminal Code; (2) Equalization and federal-provincial financial transfers; (3) national standards in Medicare, (4) Bank for Infrastructure Development.

Criminal Code amendments – a Criminal Justice Council

The law and order agenda of the Harper conservatives – designed to serve partisan advantage and not national interest – has resulted in capricious changes to the Criminal Code of Canada. All the informed evidence-based literature clearly indicates that more rigid sentencing – including mandatory minimums for an increasing array of crimes introduced by the Harper conservatives – does not produce a safer society. In fact, it just diverts valuable resources better spent on proactive strategies that are proven to reduce and prevent crime. In both Britain and the United States, where incarceration rates have spiked in the past 10 years, there has been no gain in public safety and justice. And in the U.S., which incarcerates about 700 persons out of 100,000 compared to 130 in Canada, over 70% of parolees re-offend compared to 12% in Canada.

Mandatory minimum sentences take away from the essential flexibility in the justice system that makes the court system in Canada work. With greater numbers in jail, valuable community resources are siphoned off into building more prisons rather than into building an efficient, equitable and effective justice system. The racial disparities in the inmate population increase significantly, incentives for guilty pleas are removed, and the number of charges going to trial increase, causing significant dissatisfaction among judges, defence counsel, prosecutors and police.

We need to create a permanent independent Criminal Justice Council to advise the government on Criminal Code changes regarding new crimes, penalties or sentencing. This would ensure that Criminal Code amendments are not simply knee-jerk reactions to short-term political pressures.

Commission on Equalization and Federal-Provincial Financial Transfers

Equalization and transfers of money between Ottawa and the provinces are yet another area in which partisan advantage has obscured the pursuit of the national interest.

What will it take for the Harper government to abandon its hyper-partisan approach to serious matters of national interest like equalization? Equalization, together with federal-provincial transfers for health, education and social services, plays a critical role in promoting equality of opportunity and comparable levels of services across Canada. Great nations are defined by such commitments.

Regrettably we can no longer measure how well the myriad of federal contributions to the provinces, including equalization, helps to ensure comparable public services across Canada. No amount of tinkering with the “formula” will fix this fundamental problem, especially since so many other federal programs incorporate confusing equalizing elements that actually exacerbate inequities among Canadians. The best example is Employment Insurance which is currently structured to benefit the unemployed who live in weaker areas of the country.

There is urgent need to bring coherence, consistency and accountability to the jumble of federal contributions to provinces, especially with Ontario qualifying for equalization. Unfortunately the Harper government has no interest in promoting comparable public services – the recent manifestation of this being the elimination of all federal funds for childcare. Harper’s real long-term agenda is to downsize the national government, download responsibilities and fiscal room, permanently eliminating Ottawa’s ability to pursue national standards and objectives in most public services and programs.

We need new national leadership to challenge the Harper agenda. We need to establish a permanent non-partisan advisory commission (similar to Australia) to make the system of federal contributions to provinces more transparent and subject to public scrutiny. We must ensure that, through the commission, decisions relating to federal-provincial fiscal relations are based on intelligent debate and reflect longer-term national objectives to build stronger ties among Canadians rather than attenuate them.

Medicare for the 21st century – a National Health Commission

Medicare has become less and less a national program and national symbol that draws 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 and elsewhere. The time is long overdue to establish, at the national level, the services and medical treatments, as well as the associated national standards, which should be available to all Canadians under Medicare. Canadians in all provinces must have equal access to, for example, adequate cancer testing and treatment, extensive services for autistic children, physiotherapy, or MRIs.

Yet the Harper government refuses to address the issue, claiming that Ottawa is only obligated to fulfill Paul Martin’s 10-year deal to transfer $41 billion dollars unconditionally to the provinces, and nothing else.

At the very least, Medicare funding decisions must be made in a coherent fashion in a national framework given that we invest no less than $160 billion annually – of which $113 billion is from the public purse. More importantly, there is a clear national interest and concern in preserving and updating our national health care system – an essential pillar of a strong 21st century nation, and a significant Canadian achievement to which the Americans now aspire.

Vigorous national leadership is required to bring Medicare into the 21st century. We should establish a permanent independent national health commission (building on the existing National Health Council), with a clear mandate to develop a consensus and advise both federal and provincial governments on a whole range of issues such as:

• national standards in terms of coverage,
• how to ensure that Canadians do not have to leave the country for essential medical treatments or take governments to court to pay for essential medications or treatments,
• the acceptable degree of private delivery of publicly insured health services,
• the portability of Medicare across the country,
• the level of efficiency and effectiveness in healthcare expenditures so that provincial healthcare budgets do not overwhelm equally important expenditures on education, child care, social services etc.

Bank for Infrastructure Development

As we finally focus on the need to upgrade our decaying physical infrastructure, we must devise a mechanism to assure Canadians that the massive investment will further our long-term interest in building a sustainable, dynamic social economy. We need some sort of national monitoring program that is open, accessible and accountable, and a national registry of projects receiving funds. During the U.S. election, Barack Obama endorsed the idea of a National Infrastructure Bank (or Bank for Infrastructure Development) proposed by respected investment banker Felix Rohatyn. The Bank would determine the value of each project, its environmental impact, and streamline the process of reviewing and signing off on major projects. The Bank might even raise money itself, or in connection with a regionally operated network of local investment banks that would invest in the best local organizations. A Bill proposing the creation of the bank is currently working its way through the U.S. Senate, and mandates a bipartisan board of directors, and a CEO to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. President Obama remains supportive although concerned that elected representatives will be unable to curb their partisan instincts to serve the national interest. Canada should certainly consider a similar proposal.

To be continued. Part Four will deal with the Canadian economic union

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Part 2: Parliamentary Committees and the public service

(This is Part 2 of "The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?" Part 1 is below).

Parliament and the national public service must regain the respect of a cynical people and once again attract the best and the brightest to implement a creative national agenda.

This requires new national leadership who makes it incontrovertibly clear that MPs and public servants are first and foremost working to serve the national interest, not kowtowing like sycophants to the Prime Minister’s Office.

We need new national leadership that will demand much higher standards of conduct of all our members of parliament and public servants.

We must put an end to the widespread practice of outsourcing government to over-paid consultants, and constant polling on unimportant matters, such as the current popularity of the government.

We must build up the ranks of the public service not only to reflect our diversity, but also to provide creative and innovative advice to elected representatives.

And we must put all MPs to productive work on well-resourced, televised parliamentary committees, and take the focus off our dysfunctional Question Period.

Committee work has a real impact on government policies and initiatives and is central to regaining respect for national politics. We must ensure that MPs have the expert advice and guidance they need to be serious legislators, including easy access to advisors on international affairs. This requires a substantial increase in the budget of the Library of Parliament responsible for servicing the parliamentary committees on a non-partisan basis (something that political commentator Donald Savoie has recommended for years).

Currently, committees are under-resourced and produce reports that are largely ignored by the government. This is exacerbated by a prime minister who manipulates committees to serve purely partisan purposes. The committee to investigate the caregiver dispute with Liberal M.P. Ruby Dhalla was not only unfair and inappropriate, but also a clever ruse by the Harper government to avoid dealing with the real problem - how to protect caregivers and prevent abuses of the caregiver program. It also gratified the alpha male mentality prevalent on Parliament Hill by pretending to defend immigrant women, while in fact diminishing both them and women MPs.

Committee funds have been further reduced by the Harper government’s insistence that the budget of the Parliamentary Budget Officer – the refreshingly direct and informative Kevin Page who is proving to be an irritant to the government that appointed him – draw funds from the same inadequate pool of resources available to the Library of Parliament.

Committee reform, more responsibility for MPs, improving and diversifying the public service – all must be top priority items for the next prime minister and national government.

To be continued. Part Three will deal with policy areas that need to be at arms-length from politicians and Parliament

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed? (Part One: Overview)

As yet another game of chicken over the federal election is played out, it is sobering to remember the huge numbers of Canadians who have dropped out of national politics. In 2008 almost half (42%) of all voters did not bother to vote.


Because voters do not trust politicians. Our national government is not transparent and accountable. We do not receive full and complete information on everything from the terrible state of the Chalk River isotope facilities, to the potentially dangerous side effects of drugs or chemicals, to the actual state of public finances. Politics and politicians seem to be all about partisan advantage and self-interest, not the public good and the national interest.

Because our national government lacks any coherence and national purpose. We do not feel that we are part of a collective effort to address the effects of severe recession or climate change. Canada’s global influence is waning even as more and more decisions in global forums have a direct impact on our daily lives.

Because too much of vital government business is out-sourced to overpaid consultants who are driven by personal profit, not public service. The public service itself is demoralized and unrepresentative of the diversity in Canadian society today.

Because our vote does not change anything. Election campaigns have become uninspiring and excruciatingly boring – with election platforms seemingly written by and for accountants, with no vision. Whatever the platform, the elected government governs only to maintain power, avoiding substantive intelligent debate, and muzzling its Members of Parliament. Other MP’s, unable or unwilling to play any sort of constructive role, are reduced to waiting for the chance to snap at an unlucky minister or call for a resignation.

Because Question Period is an embarrassment – the political counterpart to brawling in hockey.

Is there any escape from this depressing descent of our national politics into irrelevance and insignificance?

The short answer is yes. But we require bold and visionary national leadership to rally anxious and disillusioned Canadians, and remind us that we are stronger when we act together. We need leadership whose dedication to public service and the national interest is unquestioned, and who can inspire the same dedication in others. We need leadership to restore coherent national government at home and a clear Canadian voice on the world stage. Above all, we need leadership that looks beyond the horizon, and while charting an innovative course for the future, has the courage to recognize past mistakes and take corrective action.

Canada is a unique and fascinating 21st-century country. Canadians are increasingly global citizens – exploring the world, working in global communities, and establishing global networks that are enormously valuable economically, socially and politically. Studies reveal that three-quarters of Canadians have traveled outside the country, and one-half follows international events closely and is closely connected with one or more foreign countries.

Canadians are building a unique multi-ethnic liberal democracy that can be an inspiration to a world increasingly troubled by religious and sectarian friction. Our growing diversity of human talent is a great source of strength but also a great responsibility. If we can succeed in forging a shared national purpose among people who have never shared anything before, we will be capable of great social and economic advances at home and significant international influence opening up avenues for effective global cooperation.

This is where bold and visionary national leadership comes in. We like to believe Canada represents the best of universal values – justice, equality, diversity, the rule of law, fundamental rights and freedoms, non-discrimination, and the chance to live together in peace and humanity. We have extraordinary freedom to choose to associate with different religious, political, linguistic, and cultural communities and assume different collective identities.

But we need constant reminding that regardless of our collective identities, at all times we are individual Canadians – men and women, young and old – building an inclusive society where we are all responsible for each other, where preserving the dignity of our neighbour preserves the dignity of us all, and where our national purpose must be to improve the quality of life and build a better world for our children and grand-children. Too often our collective identities become barriers and an excuse for indifference and insensitivity among Canadians. Sadly, in this critical journey, our national leadership has been remarkably deficient.

How can we say we are building an inclusive society if we are still unable to eliminate third world conditions facing aboriginal Canadians? If we claim to be just, fair, compassionate, generous, why do the moral, political and legal issues presented by our indigenous population receive so little attention? Why are we still unable to provide aboriginal Canadians with the same quality of life and opportunities that we like to think that we offer to new Canadians? If we are and had been all the things we claim to be, places like Kashechewan and Davis Inlet would not exist. First citizens deserve once and for all to be in the first rank of national challenges to be resolved. Only when we finally face up to what has been done to aboriginal Canadians will we be able to recognize our own past religious intolerance, racism, sexual discrimination, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, endemic abuse of privilege by authority at all levels, double standards and hypocrisy. Only when we fully acknowledge our responsibility for the harm that aboriginal Canadians still suffer, and take effective action, will we finally have the tools to address our other challenges to building an inclusive society.

How can we say we are building a society with equality of opportunity when the evidence now shows that the latest wave of immigrants, while perhaps better educated than their predecessors, face more difficulties with respect to employment, reuniting their families, proper housing and health services? The huge mismatch between the skills of new Canadians and what they are actually employed to do here is jaw dropping. Too many newcomers have now become a source of low-paid labour, instead of the much-needed source of upgraded skills in the manufacturing, professional and knowledge sectors. No less than 41% of immigrants with university degrees are now in chronic low-income categories, compared to only 13% in 1993, before the immigration laws were changed to encourage more educated immigrants to come to Canada. Especially among second generation visible minority immigrants, there is a real sense of exclusion as the disaffected are left to lash out against a society that fails to give them equal opportunity in practice. They are less likely to vote, and more likely to express lower levels of a sense of belonging and general satisfaction with life than their parents’ generation.

Now the economic crisis has revealed that our ability to maintain an open, progressive, compassionate society – through environmentally sound development, excellent health care and public education, and an adequate safety net – is seriously compromised. Too many Canadians lack the necessary education for the jobs of today and in the future. Too many Canadians go to bed hungry with inadequate shelter. Even our signature national programs – Employment Insurance, Medicare, Canada Pension Plan, Equalization – can no longer be said to be truly national programs serving all Canadians effectively and equitably. We are unable to assure clean air and water, clean energy. We do not even have an economic union that permits all Canadians to train, work and do business anywhere in the country.

In order to grasp the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century, it is critical to have national leadership that will boldly place the well-being and potential of aboriginal Canadians at the centre of national affairs, initiate an innovative program to guarantee the fundamentals of Canadian citizenship, fulfill our collective responsibility to assist disadvantaged Canadians, and provide a respected voice in global affairs.

Unfortunately our current prime minister is not only incapable of providing this leadership but he is pushing the decline in national leadership to a critical level. Although open about his ideological preference for unwinding the federal government, his hyper-partisan pursuit of the goal of maintaining power at all costs frequently results in setting provinces against provinces, and Canadians against Canadians. Even the stimulus spending – from bailouts to tiny band aids on big gaps in our social security net – is unprincipled, inefficient and divisive. We know all too well that, once the recession is over, there will be an unprecedented and equally unprincipled, inefficient and divisive contraction in public investment, while the national deficit is offloaded on the backs of the provinces and municipalities.

Replacing Mr. Harper is a necessary but not sufficient condition for restoring both moral authority to national politics, and a critical sense of solidarity among Canadians, as Canadians. Bold and visionary new leadership is essential to realizing our great potential in a world without borders.

Subsequent blogs will outline proposals for reviving both public confidence in Parliament and the capacity of our national government to initiate and implement a creative innovative agenda. Part Two will discuss parliamentary committees and the public service.