At year-end, much ink is spilling over the legacy of the year of the “great recession”.
A serious assessment is next to impossible as most Canadians still struggle to catch their breath while navigating a tough recession with many family members and friends, unemployed or underemployed.
Few could describe with any certainty the exact contribution of the national government to mitigating the effects of the recession. Yes, our banking system did not melt-down, but that was the result of long-standing coherent national regulations (including strict capital ratios) – the kind of national action the current government rejects in many other areas. Any positive impact of the unprincipled hodgepodge of spending on short-term job creation and credit-easing initiatives is highly questionable, especially in light of a massive $54 billion deficit racked up in under a year.
The government spin doctors notwithstanding, what should be clear is that we did not respond to the worst economic crisis in decades within a fair and equitable framework. We did not seize the opportunity to aim high and commit to pulling out of this crisis with a greener, more sustainable economy, and an educated, more-productive workforce employed in 21st-century industries.
When we needed foresight and long-term planning to restructure the Canadian economy around industries based on innovative technological advances and our vibrant service sectors, we got government through the rear-view mirror – short-sighted subsidization, rather than transformation, of declining industries like the auto industry; failure to adapt Employment Insurance and other social security provisions to the challenging environment; and too much focus on our admittedly crumbling physical infrastructure, however important, to the detriment of our social infrastructure, notably much needed investments in scientific innovation and basic research, and better quality and available education at every level.
Then, at a time when we required, more than ever, informed and engaged citizens, Canadians appeared dangerously disengaged from national politics. Most of us ignored the superficial parliamentary melodrama that consumed official Ottawa. Our national government conveyed no sense of public purpose or narrative other than obtaining a submissive majority in Parliament. Our leaders preferred to drown us in a sea of obfuscation, as well as dampen expectations and encourage skepticism, rather than to inform and challenge us. And when this was not enough, they shut down Parliament… again.
On almost every issue – the environment, clean energy, Afghanistan, gun control, safe food, much-needed reforms of EI, pensions, health care – the government stifled intelligent open debate, attacked and intimidated those with whom it disagreed, from the National Science Advisor to the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, shrank from national action, and opted for all spin, all partisan political calculation, all of the time.
As fewer and fewer coherent national policies were adopted that advanced our ideal of a fair, compassionate and innovative country and could attract world-wide respect, we lost influence and credibility in global forums. Canada was increasingly regarded as irrelevant in global affairs. Our foreign policy was conducted on the fly, more for photo-ops than substance, revealing no strategic thinking about global approaches to the challenges we face, or about how to build up valuable alliances in the international community especially with the emerging powers of China, India and Brazil. Turning next summer’s G-8 meeting into a G-20 was an essential defensive move, but we are still no less on probation on the world stage.
Nowhere was Canada’s irrelevance more evident than at the global environment conference in Copenhagen which closed out the year. The crucible issue of our time – climate change – has been cast by our government as an irritating distraction, rather than the great moral imperative that must inspire us to act for future generations. Canada attended with no national initiatives worthy of discussion and no credible national plans for the future.
We conclude 2009 with little achieved and much that is troubling. The government record can best be summarized as peeling the onion of conservative government initiatives, only to find….there is no onion (with thanks to the brilliant satirist Jon Stewart).