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.



  1. First, thank you for your efforts to start a discussion. Few comments so far, but you've received high praise from Susan Delacourt this morning and that's gotta count for something.

    I would suggest that it's not fair to say the government and the official opposition have not put forward their respective plans. At least the larger narrative, if not the smaller details.

    Conservatives (not necessarily in this order):
    - jobs and the economy
    - reformed justice system
    - improved military capacity
    - northern sovereignty and development
    - reducing the size of government

    Liberals (ditto):
    - healthcare reform
    - access to education
    - pension reform
    - reigning in the deficit
    - giving Canada a better voice on the international stage

    Both lists could be made much longer, of course, but if we were to limit ourselves to top-5 priorities, I think that list would probably score 4 out of 5, for 19 Canadians out of 20. Or something along those lines.

    Regarding your wish list, I completely agree on the last point. Current media outlets have cut resources dedicated to political coverage. Can I vote for and educational discussion, rather than reactionary commentary, about political affairs? The media are our life-long learning plan. At this point, I would suggest they are more into sales than details. But media, like politicians, respond to their audience.

    Lastly, perhaps it is difficult for Canadians to "hold to account" our public office holders because it is not clear to most Canadians what MPs should be accountable for. For instance, is your MP:
    - someone to explain government policy?
    - someone to help you cut in front of the line in the sometimes long wait for service from the bureaucracy?
    - someone to hold the government to account?
    - someone to propose legislation?
    - someone to help your community grow?
    - someone who should vote the way you think s/he should on a particular issue (while s/he has 60-100,000 other constituents opinions to consider)?

  2. Great list Gilles!!!

    Just wondering what your list would be: politwatcher...??

    my own:

    Debt Reduction
    Health Care Reform
    Flat Tax Modernization
    Reduce the size of Govt
    North American agreement towards common currency - something akin to the EU (unlikely I know!)

  3. Thanks for asking. Here's my own policy wish-list. Like many people I would think we need to find a good balance between fixing immediate problems and investing in a good foundation for the future. I would propose that a large part of that balance would come from working towards sustainability. For instance, we need health care/education/pensions that work for today's sick/students/retirees and for those of tomorrow.

    I agree that we should direct sustained efforts at reducing the debt and the size of government. In this regard I am looking for more efficiency in the delivery of government programs and services, and sustained focus on government's essential responsibilities. This would require phasing out programs and services that are not part of essential responsibilities.

    With a view to the mid- to long-term, I believe we need to reform health care and pensions to ensure they are sustainable. I think that will require some sacrifice (reduced benefits) and serious sustained discussion.

    I would also include on this horizon sustainable development of natural resources, skills and communities. Our regulatory regime should allow their development without mortgaging their future.

  4. Thanks to you both for your comments. For me, the notion of balance is important, as is the importance of thinking long-term. I also strongly believe that social and economic goals/priorities should not be seen as mutually exclusive, as one drives the other. My list?

    - a true innovation/productivity agenda -- this has implications for the tax regime, education, job creation, trade. We need a more competitive Canada.

    - democratic reform. Our politics is broken and none of the above will be properly debated and addressed until we start to seriously look at our approach to politics.

    - health care -- the current model is not sustainable and should be looked at

    - the environment -- this needs to be considered as a broader, more strategic issue. The implications on security, transportation, food production, health, the economy, etc. are significant.


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