Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Brace yourself, 2012 is coming...

In a couple of days time, 2011 will be done and dusted. A year that saw multiple elections will have passed and the #cdnpoli world (thank-you twitter!) will turn its attention towards 2012.

The coming year offers much for politics watchers across Canada. There is the NDP leadership race, the Liberal reinvention project, the advent of a new political party in Quebec, and more provincial elections (definitely in Alberta, possibly in Quebec).

For this politics watcher, however, the things to watch in 2012 will be on the policy front.

By the time MPs return, the Conservative majority will have seen or be very close to seeing its "bread and butter" pieces of legislation come into law. The gun registry will be scrapped, the crime bill passed, and the wheat board could well be on its was to being dismantled (depending on court challenges).

With these base issues addressed, the government will more meaningfully turn its attention towards the deficit; a focus which will tell us much about how the Prime Minister sees the role of government. Already we have seen glimpses of how Mr. Harper sees the future for this federation.

First, on the health care file (Paul Wells penned a nice piece on this recently), the offer tabled with the provinces to replace the soon-to-expire health accord shows a Prime Minister who sees little role for the federal government in health care (an area of provincial jurisdiction).

His position is that the provinces should be given reasonable and predictable means to deal with what is their responsibility. National standards or federal expectations as to how the money should be spent do not fit within his vision.

Second, in the area of tax policy the Prime Minister's focus on tax reduction (GST, personal, corporate) appears designed to limit the long-term ability of the federal government to act as an agent of change. The government that chooses to do so in the future must either cut spending in other areas, or raise taxes. It is akin to being painted into a fiscal corner.

So what does this tell us about 2012? In a March 2010 post I wrote the following:

"Maybe, just maybe, the crisis presented the government with an opportunity. An opportunity to get back to its core values and roots. A real chance to enact a change in the role of government."

This is where we stand today.

A world in economic turmoil, a structural deficit at home, and a government with the Parliamentary means to effect the changes they want. Freed from the shackles of a minority Parliament, the Conservative majority is now in a position to implement its vision for Canada. And whenever questioned, the government can now point to developments taking place in Europe and the U.S. as the justification for its actions.

Cue Budget 2012.

The next federal budget will be tabled in the coming months. In the run-up to this budget we have had the public Finance Committee pre-budget consultations and the not-so-public spending review occurring across government, which is being vetted by a a Cabinet committee.

The fruit of these exercises, and in particular the latter, will help frame a budget that will take another step along the road towards redefining the relationship between the Government of Canada and us.

Shouldn't we be talking about it?


Many have said that 2011 was the year that Mr. Harper got what he wanted. A majority was secured and the Liberals were knocked down to a level from which many feel they will not be able to climb.

My sense is that these accomplishments are seen by Mr. Harper as means to an end. I don't think these are the reasons that he has gotten out of bed each morning. What these accomplishments do is position him to redefine the role of the federal government in the lives of Canadians.

This is topic which can allow for many positions and varying points of argument. It is a great topic in that it strikes at a core question for any country - what do we expect of the governments we elect?

Yet it is a conversation we are not having. At best we play at the margins, or debate specific issues and not the broader policy thrust and how the pieces fit together. We need to do better in 2012.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back

Parliament's winter break has begun and MPs have made their way back home. Unlike recent times, however, everyone has gone home knowing that regardless of whether they have been good or bad Santa will not be giving them a trip to the polls for the holidays.

Deprived of any election rumblings, politics watchers are left with the more traditional end-of-year retrospectives and report cards. And with the NDP and the Liberals going down the introspection road, any year-end review undoubtedly leads to the Conservatives and how their eight months with a "strong, stable majority" have played out.

From the view at A Guy Watching Politics, the assessment would read something like:

One Step Forward, Three Steps Back.

More than anything else, a majority is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to govern without the fear of an election, of course. But is also an opportunity to rise above short-term politics and tackle the challenge of governing. It is a chance to consider the challenges and opportunities the country faces and set a path forward. It is a time for leadership.

Unfortunately, the past eight months have given us only fleeting glances of a government seizing the real potential of these opportunities. Let's start with the positives.

Recognizing the regional land mines and, perhaps, learning from the F35 debacle, the government managed a very successful procurement programme for the navy. It was fair, hands-off and has won deserved plaudits. In these situations, some will always lament the decision. That the process has come out not just unscathed but commended is a sign of good policy.

The Supreme Court appointments offer another example of the government taking a measured approach to a sensitive topic. As is his prerogative, the Prime Minister chose from a list agreed upon by an all-party committee. There was no major shift to the right as many feared, and the process was more or less consistent with what we have come to expect in Canada.

So, some steps forward on the process side. The Libya mission is also a good example of the government being open and clear about its objectives and, essentially, being on the right side of the argument. The government has also stepped up its efforts on the international trade front.

This would all be well and good if it weren't for the steps backward...

The withdrawal from the Kyoto Accord and the general demeanour of the government on what is the defining (environmental) issue of the day is more than disappointing - it is a failure to take responsibility. Climate change is more than an environmental issue. It is a health issue, an economic issue, a transportation issue, and a foreign policy issue.

Yet Canada is now seen as a country that fails to take this issue seriously. We are seen as obstructionist and lacking vision. Our brand is weak and we are considered to be short-sighted (for failing to grasp the severity of the situation) and single-minded (for being so desperate to protect the oil sands).

In terms of policy here at home, we have been shown as similar lack of vision. A gun and crime agenda has been relentlessly pursued in the face of all evidence and experience which suggest it is misguided. Dollars which could be used to advance the lives of Canadians will instead be used on jails. The valuable data housed within the gun registry will be destroyed.

But beyond these areas, the real issue - the major step back - has been the inability of the government to hold in check its partisan impulses. Some examples:

- the Quebecor-driven and Conservative-lead attack on the CBC
- the increasing use of closure to kill debate
- the not-so-subtle criticism of the Parliamentary Budget Officer when his office questions the government
- the reprehensible tactics used in the riding of Mount Royal to promote the Conservative party

Too often it appears that we have a government which goes to great lengths to engender a dysfunctional tone in Parliament, for the sole purpose of using that tone as a justification to ignore Parliament and move forward without debate and accountability. And with a disjointed opposition there is nothing standing in the way.


Eight months in as a majority and the Conservatives have shown glimpses of good government. Unfortunately, they have also shown an inability (or unwillingness) to keep their more partisan instincts in place.

They remain less a government and more a party; fixated more on their opposition and their political base, and less on the issues of the day. This may be good for the Conservative Party, but Canada loses.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Doing the limbo under an already low bar

A lot has been said in recent days about the Conservative party's not-so-subtle campaign against Irwin Cotler in the riding of Mount Royal. To have the Government House Leader not only acknowledge the use of such tactics, but to go on and defend them has, as many have remarked, laid bare the depths to which our politics has fallen.

It is akin to setting the bar low, and then limboing under it. It takes a freakish skill and you can't care how you look. In this case, it is the Conservative government which has stepped up and responded to the challenge "how low can you go?"

To say that this is unfortunate is an understatement. We are seven months into a majority mandate, and for the first time since 2006 the "election around the corner" has been pushed to the back of our political minds. Or at least we hoped it had.

Rather than embark on the business of governing, stay above the fray, and do their job while the two main opposition parties turn inwards as they look for new leadership, the Conservative government has remained in their perpetual campaign mode. Sometimes it seems like they just can't help themselves.

Political stability should have brought a levelling off of the constant campaigning. It should have brought responsible government and meaningful opposition. And it should have brought debate, particularly on the more pressing issues of the day (hint - this does not mean prisons or the gun registry).

Unfortunately it has brought us very little of these things. What it has brought us is a vicious circle. Each week that we are subjected to events like those in the riding of Mount Royal sadly reinforces for many a sense that Parliament doesn't work and that there is no point to being engaged.

Rather than act as a lightning rod or a catalyst, these events simply accelerate the lack of engagement in our politics. People are tuning out, and there is no imminent election or stability among the opposition to grab their attention.

In this environment, Canada loses.


Political tactics and constant campaigning are undermining the already shaky foundations on which our belief in Parliament stands. We need to not only expect better; we must demand it.

Unfortunately letting someone know that this is not acceptable cannot be done by turning one's back. Improper actions should result in greater scrutiny, not less. If your concerns fall on deaf ears, talk louder.

There might not be an election around the corner, but some 308 people are in a 4-5 year job interview. And you are in charge of hiring. Don't let them forget.
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