Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Let's give them something to talk about...

In line with some of my recent posts about setting the agenda, I found Jeffrey Simpson's piece in today's Globe and Mail to be an excellent read. Entitled "Let's have a mature discussion about public finances", the piece discusses the all-too-often tendency of politicians to avoid discussing the hard challenges we are facing.

Mr. Simpson correctly points out that restoring some measure of balance to our national finances will require Canadians to consider real, difficult choices. Window dressing cuts, such as those recently announced in Ontario regarding "perks" or those announced in Ottawa this last year regarding public service wages, are not going to accomplish anything meaningful.

However, putting these on the table and suggesting that they are meaningful unfortunately takes our focus away from questions about tax policy, health care spending (a BIG ticket item looming for the federal and provincial governments), and how best to enhance productivity.

In a recent post I noted the following: "Put another way, long-term issues require thoughtful consideration, engagement and ultimately hard decisions - decisions which will inevitably anger as many people as they please. In other words, they are fraught with risk for the politician who knows that he or she may be knocking on doors in 6-8 weeks asking for a vote." This is the problem that the election around the corner creates.

The thing is, in today's world problems - including many of the ones we are facing in Canada - do not wait around patiently for us to get our act together. The government that is formed after the next election will, whether they like it or not, be tasked with moving Canada forward. If that's the case, don't you think it would be better if we started talking about it now?


Monday, December 27, 2010

Agenda Setting...

It's crystal ball season again. No, not those ones hanging from our Christmas trees. I am talking about those magical orbs which promise a glimpse into the future; some insight into what we can expect in the year ahead.

In terms of politics in Canada, this gazing invariably is focused on the prospects of an election. Five years of minority government will do that to you. However, it actually wasn't too long ago that our look-ahead focused on the issues at hand, on the agenda.

Yes, once upon a time issues and initiatives were discussed and measured on the relative strength of their merits and importance to Canada as a whole. Of course the electoral implications were considered. But this was by no means done to the degree to which it is today. The election prism did not define our politics the way it does heading into 2011.

So, rather than speculate on whether and when we will have an election in 2011, here are some more of my candidates for "the agenda."

First, what is the role of government? Deficits, both federal and provincial, should be forcing a conversation about the role of government. Government spending in Canada rose considerably before the global economy went into downward spiral. During the crisis it increased further, to levels that are not sustainable.

Our political discourse in 2011 should therefore include focus on restoring a measure of balance to our nation's finances. Such a discussion has implications for tax policy, for example. We have already seen the impact of the GST cut on the government's coffers. The outcome of the debate on corporate tax cuts (favoured by the government, opposed by the opposition) will have a significant impact on what government can and cannot afford to do in areas like health care, the economy, education, the environment.

Second, what does the future look like for our democratic institutions? In 2005-2006, the Conservatives ran a campaign based largely on the notion that our politics was broken, that there was a need for someone to "Stand Up For Canada." For about 2 years after their victory, the government was still referring to itself as Canada's "new government" - an attempt to make a sharp break from the past.

Heading into 2011, we should be having a conversation about what the past 5 years has meant in terms of things like accountability, transparency and debate. And more importantly, what we want the next five years to look like.

What do we expect of our MPs? What is the role of Parliament? To my eyes, our institutions are damaged. We too often see either a focus on more trivial issues, or debate on decisions that have been already been made.

So, on my agenda we have "What is the role of government?" and "What is the role of our democratic institutions?" What's on yours? Thoughts?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"So what's going on in Ottawa?" and other holiday dinner conversation topics...

As someone who lives in Ottawa, the holiday season inevitably includes discussions with non-Ottawa family members and friends about politics. The conversation typically starts one of two ways.

The first is based on the perception that, as an Ottawa-resident, you have some special insight on politics. "You live in Ottawa, so tell me why they really scrapped the long-form census?" is indicative of the type of question one might find oneself on the receiving end of during a lull in the Christmas dinner conversation.

The second way these conversations start is premised on the notion that no one in Ottawa actually gets what's happening in the real world. "Out of touch" is one of the more polite phrases that come up in such situations.

While these observations are the usual starting points for a discussion, what follows is often quite interesting. Why? Because what follows is perspective.

These conversations challenge, frustrate, encourage, enliven and inform my view on what's happening in Canada and how our politics is perceived by the people I know. This is a good thing. This is engagement.

The holiday season and early parts of 2011 will serve as a form of reconnaissance for our main political parties, and for current and would-be MPs. The good ones will be paying close attention to these types of conversations and using the individual and cumulative perspective shared with them to inform their views on many of the issues which matter to you and I.

We should take this opportunity and run with it. The period leading up to an election is a chance, however small, to influence the ballot box question. It's a chance to share what's important to you, and in so doing to challenge your current and prospective political leaders to respond.

It doesn't matter if it's the economy or health care, the environment or Afghanistan, funding for the arts or law and order. Those who aspire to lead us need to know what matters to us. And they need to tell us clearly what governing would mean for them. Let's do our part.

Thoughts (and please pass the gravy)?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Expectations?

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Actually, it's neither. Welcome to politics in Canada at the end of 2010. As Lawrence Martin noted this week, borrowing from Ralph Goodale, it has been a year where mediocrity has reigned supreme.

In an attempt to get some discussion going on the issues, I asked you - the reader (he said hopefully) - for ideas. The hope is that discussion can lead to engagement, and that engagement can in some small way move us from mediocrity and towards meaningful debate.

Believe it or not, I have received some suggestions. Health care, the role of our banks, and the role of MPs being three great ones. I have also been succinctly reminded that "it's the economy, stupid". Having received such a direct suggestion, I think we should start there. In the end, it will likely be the top of mind issue for a significant number of voters.

Over the past 18 months we have been told that our economy is in strong shape; that Canada fared better than most and that our banking system - a core driver of economic growth - is the envy of the world. While much of this is true, it would be wrong to suggest that all is well.

The global economy is not in a happy place, and given that it is so heavily integrated, Canada is vulnerable. The risk of sovereign defaults and the future of the Euro is casting a long shadow. In Canada we are being warned about growing household and government debt, while in the U.S. we see our major trading partner continuing to struggle.

My view on government is the following: government is not about having all the answers, but it's about asking the right questions. So, in terms of the economy what are the questions? Let's start with the following:

1. What does the future of manufacturing in Canada look like? What do we need to do to prepare? What role can governments play in helping Canadian companies become more productive and competitive, including helping them shift their production offshore?

2. Investment drives economic growth - it can provide capital and drive innovation. What can Canada do to attract investment? Should foreign ownership regulations be relaxed? If so, across the board or only in certain sectors?

3. Economic priorities and social ones are not mutually exclusive - they are interdependent. What investments should Canada be making in social services (education, health, pension reform, aboriginal communities) with an eye towards building a more innovative and productive economy?

4. A trading nation is a more innovative and competitive nation. How can Canada grow as a trading nation? What is the role of government beyond negotiating market access and investment protection?

The answers to these questions and others will impact trade, jobs, personal finances, our pensions and RRSPs. In other words, how all of this plays out will affect Canadian prosperity.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

A big thanks...and a request

First of all, thanks to those of you who took the time this week to take a peek at A Guy Watching Politics. To wake up and see your blog referenced in the media and an entire post included in someone else's blog is quite a feeling for someone who, let's be honest, is not well-known or seen as a must-read.

I have never met Susan Delacourt before, so for her to take that level of interest meant a great deal. Thanks! For those of you who are not following her blog, do so - it is a must read (

Now for a request to those of you still reading. On what topics would you like to see postings? What issues matter to you? Let's see if we can get more of a dialogue going. Tell me your thoughts, share with me your ideas and let's go from there.

Again, thanks for the interest, the comments and the engagement.

A Guy Watching Politics

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wanted: An Engaged Voter

Parliament is about to begin its winter break, and with that politics watchers out there will be treated to the usual year-end articles, podcasts and news features on "the year that was." As to be expected, these features will focus on the politicians.

Who had a good year, and who has disappointed. Who's up-and-coming Cabinet material, and who is destined for the backbench. We'll reflect on the main issues and the players in Ottawa, in the provinces and in major municipalities.

I would like to propose we add a group to this annual list - the public.

Someone commented to me recently that "democracy isn't a spectator sport. If it's not working then everyone's not working." I could not agree more. I have written on this blog on more than one occasion about the importance of an engaged citizenry; about the need for a public that needs to play a more active and informed role in its democracy.

If the informed chatter is to be believed, we should expect an election in 2011, be it in the spring or the fall. With that in mind, it's an opportune time to consider the voter and ask ourselves what kind of year they - no, we - had. Were we engaged, informed and active participants in our democracy? If we really are heading into an election year, let's consider the voter's state of "preparedness."

My take is that the reviews would be mixed.

Let's first consider how the year started - prorogation. I think on this front, we were all surprised about the degree to which people were engaged. It was quite interesting to see the reaction of many Canadians to the decision to prorogue for no apparent reason other than to avoid some tricky issues in the House. On our engagement meter, prorogation scores high.

I would also score potash as having generated a high degree of engagement, and not just in Saskatchewan. While I would have liked to have seen the public more aware of the pros AND the cons about allowing the sale (the debate became more of a nationalist one, versus the economic merits, implications for trade and market access, etc.), I still think the fact that this issue became a national one reflects well on the public and the media.

The municipal elections offer a mixed bag in terms of engagement. We had some very interesting results (Calgary), potentially significant results (Toronto), curious results (London) and not surprising results (Ottawa, at least in terms of the race for Mayor). Levels of engagement on the issues varied greatly, but what struck me was the strong interest in change. In many cases it truly was an "out with the old" mentality - something which could have implications for establishment politicians at the provincial and the federal level.

Beyond these areas, I see a public that can be prone to slumber only to be momentarily woken by an issue. The census is an example where we became engaged - but less on the substance, and more on the impression the decision left in terms of the government and what we thought of their, for want of a better word, behaviour. The G20 spending is another example - we were upset, nothing more. To me that's not really engagement.

I then add the relative lack of engagement on issues like Afghanistan, the environment and the economy. Here I see us failing to hold all elected officials to account for what are truly defining issues for the Canada of today and tomorrow. These are the types of issues around which the next election should be fought. I would also add to this list accountability. It was an issue in 2006, and should be again in 2011.

Whether this proves to be the case will depend on us. Hopefully we're up for it.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

All I want for Christmas...

Here we are approaching the end of another year. For those of us (sadly) obsessed with Ottawa and its constant performance, I think 2010 will be remembered as a year of several mini-dramas...but not much in terms of substance.

In no particular order, this year has seen the political classes focus their energy on: prorogation; Rahim and Helena; the G20 and its fake lake; the long-form census; Ignatieff’s bus tour; Harper’s concert tour (ok, two performances); potash; by-elections; and construction contracts. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but nor is it a particularly warming one for those of us looking for real debate and dialogue.

That’s not to say that some of these issues (and others not mentioned) are not important or substantive. Potash, prorogation or the census issue clearly are. So is the future of the Afghan mission. However, the discussion and debate is often transitory. Issues emerge and debate occurs, but at some point it becomes clear that the issue does not satisfy a broader political goal (i.e. electoral prospects), and it falls from our collective radar as we move on to “The. Next. Big. Thing.”

Why is this happening? I think there are a few reasons. First, we have a government that knows it can provoke and challenge without any telling reprisal. The opposition does not want an election, so its condemnation of the latest government initiative does not amount to much.

When the government does “back down”, it does in response to polling data. The advocate of this approach to governing would call it strategic and measured. The critic would see it as akin to a child testing to see what they can get away with. The answer is likely somewhere in between.

The opposition’s failure to offer clear alternatives is also a major factor at play. For example, to this day I still do not know what a Liberal government would look like.

In a minority Parliament, this absence of a defined alternative makes no sense to me. As someone told me once, you should always have your cv up-to-date. After more than one year since trying to provoke an election, the Liberals have failed to craft an alternative vision for governing the country. I want the reason I "hire" someone to be based on more than than the fact that they aren't the other guy.

Failing to define a clear alternative results in the focus all opposition parties seem to have with the sensational...on the political theater. The attention paid to the thinner issues on offer does generate short-term gains - hence the small movements in weekly polling numbers.

Up to a point, I can see the logic to this tactic. It’s the “death by a thousand cuts” idea, whereby the opposition tries to use individual issues to develop a broader narrative about the government. The working material is certainly there. But up to this point in time, they have failed to develop this narrative. So the bouncing from issue to issues continues.

Another driver of this state of affairs is the “election around the corner” mentality I have mentioned previously on this blog. The government is probably comfortable with all of the theater and short-term discussion, as long as it does not factor significantly into how voters in those select swing ridings think. The opposition, which seems to be more "spray and pray" is too focused on trying to please everyone, which history will tell you pleases no one.

So, where does that leave us? Well, as the title of this posting suggests, it takes me to my Christmas wish list. What is it I want?

- A government that puts forward its plan for dealing with the challenges of today, and for positioning the Canada of tomorrow.

- An opposition that gives me an alternative; a clear sense as to what a different government would look like.

- A Parliament better focused on dialogue and debate on the government’s plan and the opposition’s position.

- An end to gossip-column politics; the challenges Canada is facing are worth more of Ottawa’s time than much of which has garnered the spotlight.

I also had on my list “a public prepared to hold everyone to account.” In previous posts I have lamented the absence of a more engaged citizenry. However, the stagnant polling numbers for all parties do tell us something about the public and the fact that they have not been seized in any meaningful way by any of this spectacle.

In our own, typically Canadian way, perhaps we are engaged. We have elected a minority government in each of the last three elections. The polling numbers from 2006-2010 have not moved in any significant way. Perhaps this is our way of saying that we are not captivated; that no party (outside of the Bloc in Quebec) has resonated with us. That we expect better.

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