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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.