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Big, Busy and Bold?

Post-election on Parliament Hill.

There were no winners in the 2019 federal election. Members of parliament are reconvening on Parliament Hill like a classroom of chastened schoolboys after an embarrassing noon-hour brawl, not as respected political leaders. The country, however, might benefit from a more somber, careful approach to public policy and decision-making. All parties have a social license to discard petty promises they made to court certain groups of voters and to focus instead on the big challenges facing Canada. Many commentators predict small steps, but there is reason to suggest that bold actions in a number of areas is what it will take for a clear political win in the next election. 

All-stakeholder transition to a cleaner economy

MPs can borrow good ideas to reduce pollution, address climate change, and shift to a more sustainable economy from all corners. Start with the innovations in Alberta that we hear too little about and ensure workers in industries that will not come back, west and east, are not left behind. The election left a heightened public awareness that changes are in store for every Canadian, either by choice or as the impacts of climate change hit home in Canada. That helps to solicit cooperation across sectors that might not work together in other contexts.

If every MP engages with communities and businesses interested in moving forward, the momentum will force loud provincial politicians to shift from protecting turf to forward-looking strategies that don’t need to leave anyone on the sidelines.

Practice reconciliation 

Significant work has been done to reform indigenous child welfare; while there are important issues to be resolved, going back to court is retrograde. It is positive that the New Democrats have named this as the high priority it should be. Treating the growing number of First Nations, Metis and Inuit children with justice will be good for the economy of the future. Do justice and things will go well – this is a timeless Biblical truth. 

Changing governing relationships is long-term work, but a clear deadline for burning the Indian Act and replacing the bureaucracy with new structures based on co-determination would jog tired old systems into real action. There is no excuse for the slow pace of change.

Ironically, First Nations people who have treaties with Canada and own land in provinces that include separatist voices like Wexit in Alberta or the Bloc in Quebec could be strong partners for rebuilding national unity. At a minimum, their lands can’t just be taken out of Canada. 

Make pharmacare and health care a top priority 

A First Minister’s Conference on pharmacare and health care would respond to the high public priority of these issues and foster more public accountability and cooperation. Canada lags badly in our approach to prescription medicine, at great cost to everyone. Provinces want more money for health care but there is poor accountability for outcome-based returns on tax dollars. Everyone could be a winner and restore some badly needed confidence in our federalist system of governance. 

Reduce inequities

We need to transform equalization into an equal opportunity covenant between all Canadians.

Equal opportunity and reducing inequities ranks high in all measures of Canadian values. Back-room deals with provincial leaders under all federal parties and lack of transparency on outcomes and use of taxpayer funds is resulting in another round of regional resentments that threaten social cohesion. That doesn’t happen with other initiatives to distribute wealth, such as Old Age Security. The so-called crisis could be used to make changes that benefit people across Canada. 

Transparent review of the tax system  

Corporate voices and social justice advocates agree that our tax system needs major reform to meet the tests of fairness and public confidence. It is essential to change public attitudes and end the use of targeted tax cuts to appeal to voters and divide them on the basis of self-interest. The memory of the confusing wars over whose tax cuts would put more money in which pockets in the last election might be enough to get long-needed tax reforms done. 

Strengthen the anti-racism strategy and include religious freedom 

It is time for a fresh national conversation about the shape of pluralism in Canada – one that is not constrained by the particular strategic considerations that colour the debate about Bill 21 in Quebec. A weak anti-racism strategy was released just before the election. While some elements are positive, it lacks depth on the critical issues that are bubbling up in other places as well as in Quebec. Some polls showed that about a third of respondents in other provinces would welcome legislation similar to Bill 21. Now is the time for proactive dialogue and new frameworks for accommodating pluralism across the country. 

Prepare for the economic impacts of emerging technologies 

Several commentators have pointed out that the real threats to our economic and social well-being received almost no attention in the election. New public policies are needed before we find ourselves reacting to negative social and ethical impacts that could have been prevented. At least we could prepare the ground for more productive debates in the next election. 

This should be enough to keep MPs busy on matters of genuine public good instead of playing partisan political games at public expense. That’s what a good teacher does to restore order. 

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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