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In the coming decade, government will need to resume a pro-active role in governance (© Jupiterimages/Comstock/Alamy/iStock/Photodisc/Marcelle Faucher)
In the coming decade, government will need to resume a pro-active role in governance (© Jupiterimages/Comstock/Alamy/iStock/Photodisc/Marcelle Faucher)

David Mitchell

Where have all the policy-makers gone? Add to ...

Think hard: What were the policy and governance highlights of the past decade? It's a short list. Our federal government avoided the military intervention in Iraq, joined the war effort in Afghanistan and, largely in reaction to the sponsorship scandal in Quebec, was preoccupied by the internal processes of accountability.

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In fact, pro-active policy-making within government has atrophied.

The Jean Chrétien years of the 1990s were focused mostly on fiscal management and balancing the budget. Beyond this objective, the decade featured only two other notable initiatives: The innovation agenda delivered a significant increase in public research funding, and the Team Canada trade missions saw collaboration between the federal and provincial governments to enhance bilateral trading relationships while building the country's brand globally.

But the nineties were hardly characterized by robust policy development.

In contrast, Brian Mulroney's two consecutive majority governments represent the last time the federal government pursued a broad and ambitious policy agenda. The 1980s Progressive Conservatives pursued free trade; two attempts at constitutional change; implementation of the controversial goods and services tax; and numerous foreign-policy initiatives, including active diplomatic participation in helping to achieve the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Policy mattered during the eighties, and both policy-makers and citizens engaged in vigorous debates about ideas.

The relatively dull period that followed can be seen as a reaction to this surge of policy activism. More timid governments have been reluctant to embrace bold ideas or ambitious initiatives, preferring to keep their heads down and focus on the safer drudgery of service delivery and public administration.

Needless to say, this isn't the stuff of inspiration. Nor is it the best way to recruit the next generation of public-service leaders. Indeed, many believe the best ideas are now being generated by the private sector, think tanks and universities, making the prospect of meaningful public-service renewal quite grim.

But the exigencies of our times and the legitimate needs of citizens and communities are propelling us into a future that will demand government's attention to policy once again. We can't avoid the accumulated problems; government must act. This will require thoughtful policy development, new forms of collaboration and public engagement. In the coming decade, governments will need to play at least a co-ordinating role in the following areas:

Aging: Canada's rapidly aging population has massive policy implications in the areas of health, pensions, immigration, housing, skills development and education. The private sector is already adapting to the changing market realities, but governments will need to develop and adopt integrated policies, to co-ordinate and deliver services to a population with needs that differ greatly from that of previous generations.

Energy and the environment: If Canada is indeed an energy superpower, it needs to start behaving like one. The private sector is already calling for a cohesive strategy and the federal government has an important co-ordinating role to play among the provinces and diverse energy producers. Likewise, Canadians seem increasingly prepared to share some of the responsibilities associated with climate change. We need a clean-energy policy.

Innovation: Canada can't afford to fall further behind the impressive advances in research and development so evident in the U.S., China, Europe and many smaller countries outperforming us in scientific and economic innovation. Our private sector's leadership must be encouraged and bolstered by a new innovation strategy for the next generation. And we need to explore an integrated model that includes innovation in the social sector and the public service.

Trade: I believe Canadians will benefit by reasserting themselves as a trading nation. In a G20 world, we're well positioned to build on relationships with established trading partners and to develop mutually beneficial links with developing nations. Here, too, government can assist the private sector by more aggressively facilitating and co-ordinating the activities of Canadian exporters and promoting a stronger and clearer national brand.

Federal-provincial relations: Canada is already among the most decentralized federations. The fiscal challenges now confronting all levels of government will require a renewed focus on federal-provincial relationships. More effective co-ordination will also be required in each of the broad policy areas referred to above. We can't afford a tentative or reluctant federalism. The federal government needs to take on a leadership role. Otherwise, who speaks for Canada?

It's time for the pendulum to swing back to policy-making by government, in collaboration with other sectors and an engaged public. As we continue to re-evaluate the role of the state in our lives, I'm excited by the prospect of the dialogue that will necessarily accompany this process.

David Mitchell is president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum.

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