(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