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.