Monday, January 23, 2012

Considering Consultations

In the coming weeks, the Harper government will table Budget 2012 - a budget which is expected to lay out those areas where the government will look to reduce spending in order to eventually eliminate the deficit. For politics watchers in Canada, this budget could be a big deal.

Ongoing discussions in the U.S. and the EU regarding austerity and the affordability of public services have once again put the topic of deficits near the top of the political agenda. That, coupled with the sense that a long-term objective of the Harper government is to re-shape the role (and size) of the federal government, is resulting in growing speculation about what we can expect.

With so much speculation out there, it is worth taking a moment to consider how budgets are "built", and in particular the role of consultations.

Governments, regardless of their stripe, do not build budgets in a vacuum. They consult - internally across departments, and externally through discussions with leading economists and key stakeholder groups. One element of this dialogue are the on-line pre-budget consultations initiated by the Department of Finance, found here.

A parallel set of consultations are conducted by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance; consultations which draw heavily on input from an extremely diverse range of stakeholders. You can view the briefs submitted over 2011 here, and the final report here.

These consultations can be interesting for two reasons. First, for the wide range of views that are expressed. Stakeholders representing a range of interests provide their views on how government should tax, spend, regulate and more generally provide stewardship over the economy.

Second, because majority governments have often used the Committee report as something of a trial balloon, floating ideas in order to gauge reaction. In some cases, a report may be more radical, thereby allowing the government to position itself as the reasonable compromise.

I have no issue with any of this, and in fact feel that the process does allow one to get greater perspective of the multiple views that exist in relation to the challenges and opportunities we face. However, I do think the process could be improved in one major way.

Right now, we have a one-way street. Government (through the Finance department) or Parliament (through the Committee) asks for views, and stakeholders oblige. However, at no point in the process does the government table any meaningful information about what it is considering.

Imagine a process whereby the government tabled a white paper, or series of broad options or policy objectives under consideration. In other words, showed us what at a high-level they were thinking and solicited our reaction and input to that thought process.

That would be a true consultation. And it would be a consultation which would promote more of a dialogue about the choices we are facing, and the difficult job a government has in balancing between competing interests.

Perhaps most importantly, it would provide a degree of transparency which would open up the policy process and hopefully lead to greater engagement by a broader cross-section of the voting public.


Monday, January 16, 2012


Over the coming weeks that old beast we call policy will rear its ugly head, as politics watchers prepare for and then comment on the 2012 federal budget. In this budget the government will present the fiscal health of the country and then lay out its plan for tackling the deficit.

A reduction in public spending will be the main focus of the government's plan. The expected scaling down of some government activity was foreshadowed by the Prime Minister this weekend in a letter to his caucus, in which he wrote that Canada's future prosperity will require "tough choices."

The use of the word "choices" interests me. More to the point, it is Mr. Harper's additional comment that the choices to which he was referring would need to be made "together with the Canadian people" which has caught my attention.

To start, the fact that choices need to be made is entirely correct and in keeping with what we should expect of government. Governing is about making choices, and given what is happening in Canada and around the world it is clear that there are a number of policy areas which warrant discussion and decision-making.

My question is where is the discussion?

Some time in the coming weeks you and I will get to see the government's decision. We will get to see what they intend to do (and will safely pass with their majority). What we won't have is a real opportunity to actually consider the choices. And there is no evidence to suggest that any meaningful changes to the budget presented would be accepted by the government.

What we get is, for all intents and purposes, a done deal. There is no choice on offer that can reasonably be described as being one that will be made "together with the Canadian people." Equally frustrating, there is no sense as what options the government has considered as it built this forthcoming budget.

In the absence of any meaningful transparency, I found myself reading two articles today. The first is on health care and the need for the government to think more broadly about how we fund the system and the role of the federal government.

The second is about austerity, arguing that governments have made austerity the defining issue of the day without having a good debate about the other options we face.

Two articles, both thoughtful reads and illustrative of the type of dialogue we should be having as we debate policy. Unfortunately, we are about to debate decisions that have been taken - something which is tantamount to being able to say your peace, even when you know it won't change things. We deserve and should aspire for better.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Defining Progressive for a 21st Century Canada

In recent weeks there has been a lot of discussion about what Canadian politics will look like over the course of 2012. Much of that discussion - including here - has focused on the government, and how a Harper majority will act during its first full year.

The focus on the Harper government is understandable, particularly when one starts to consider the upcoming budget. However, politics watchers should be focusing equally on the events that will play out among the NDP and the Liberals.


Over the course of the 2012, the NDP and the Liberals will each be very busy. The former will choose a new leader. The latter will review, well, everything, as it prepares to choose a new leader in 2013.

However, there is a more important undercurrent to the efforts of both parties. As they move through their respective processes, the NDP and the Liberals will be taking big steps towards redefining what it means to be a progressive party in twenty-first century Canada.

Whether this redefinition results in two or only one progressive party remains to be seen. There will be plenty of time for a hard look at the need for and the likelihood of success of a merged party.

At this juncture, the more pressing need is for the progressive elements of the Canadian political landscape to take some time to do what, frankly, they failed to do properly over the past decade. Rather than lay out a credible and consistent vision of what a progressive party represents, both parties let the Conservatives do it for them.

That is not to say that the NDP and Liberals were silent. More that since 2006 they have been essentially on the back foot; reacting to the Conservatives' formidable communications regime.

The Liberals were the big losers in this game. However, the NDP's recent electoral success masks to an extent their own challenges. In many respects, their success was the result of Mr. Layton's appeal and the Liberal implosion.

Now, deprived of Mr. Layton the party has shown signs of drift at the very time its rookie caucus needs direction. Moreover, I would bet that few Canadians could tell you what an NDP government would look like. On a number of policy files this fall, the Liberals tended to play a more effective opposition role.

So, what to do...

To start, move away from the traditional left-right dichotomy and present a progressive vision for Canada. This vision needs to shift the dialogue such that progressive does not become a new way of saying left.

Rather, progressive needs to be defined as being about balance; about carefully and openly considering the challenges and opportunities the country faces, and collaboratively developing solutions.

It should define what fiscal responsibility means in progressive politics. Progressive cannot be simply about opposing spending cuts or raising corporate taxes. It needs to represent a balanced approach to what is an legitimate issue.

Being progressive should also be about promoting a real dialogue about how priority policy areas (health, the economy, the environment, education and foreign policy) are inter-connected.

More often than not, policy options in these areas are presented as being independent of one another. They are not. Progressive politics should be about connecting the various policy threads and telling the story in a way that connects with the voter.

This doesn't mean playing down to the voter. On the contrary, the voter needs to be challenged to see the big picture and the options a government needs to consider.

In the end, progressive politics must stand for something which resonates with Canadians and which is credible. It has to move our policy dialogue away from absolutes and the tendency to see options as mutually exclusive. It has to be more than a default to the Conservatives.

So come on NDP and Liberals - give it some thought and show us what you've got. Canada is waiting.
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