Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority government seems more intent on redressing the past than on facing the challenges of the future. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's majority government seems more intent on redressing the past than on facing the challenges of the future. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

barrie mckenna

Canada's big problems need more than small thinking Add to ...

It’s just the way it is with Parliamentary majorities: For better or worse, the party in power gets its way.

It can go big, with ambitious ideas. Ignore the polls. Reward the faithful.

Six months into Canada’s first majority in seven years, the Harper government has been busy.

But busy doing what?

The government is using its numerical advantage to fulfill old promises and redress grievances. The result is a rocket docket of legislation that, among other things, gets tough on crime, scraps the long-gun registry and revokes the Wheat Board’s grain marketing monopoly.

More from Barrie McKenna

But red meat for the Conservative base shouldn’t be confused with big ideas to deal with an unusually challenging and uncertain economic future.

Much of the world is at risk of sliding back into recession, as governments, businesses and consumers unburden themselves of excess debt.

Canada isn’t immune. Ontario’s warning last week of sharply weaker growth – and revenues – this year and next is a harbinger. The country is facing years of having to do more with less, putting an onus on being more strategic with limited resources.

Canada 2020, a non-partisan think tank in Ottawa, issued a call to action last week with a collection of 15 papers by prominent Canadian thinkers. “Governing is about making choices,” according to the report, The Canada We Want in 2020. “Our standard of living and quality of life could well hang in the balance. This is why we need federal leadership.”

It’s hardly a mystery where the economic challenges lie. It’s a long list.

Canada’s productivity performance is abysmal. Companies aren’t investing nearly enough in the kind of R&D that will create wealth for future generations. Pockets of our domestic economy are hopelessly uncompetitive and costly new infrastructure projects are badly needed.

We’re also too dependent on the U.S. market and poorly positioned to exploit emerging opportunities in Asia. Canada produces more than its fair share of greenhouse gases, but isn’t ready to pay to curb them. Health-care costs are outstripping governments’ ability to pay, while holes in the system leave Canadians desperate for GPs and waiting too long for key procedures. Finally, too many Canadians are falling through the cracks of the pension and employment safety net.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty promised last week the government would “strive for an enduring economic prosperity, not fleeting short-term political gratification.”

But there was no hint of that ambition in last year’s election campaign, or in the subsequent Throne Speech. And with the next budget barely three months away, there are still few hints Ottawa has any answers to these challenges.

The government has so far offered up half-measures.

After pondering a major overhaul of the Canada Pension Plan, it downgraded its plans with a bill to bring in voluntary Pooled Registered Pension Plans for the millions of Canadians without workplace pensions.

On trade with Asia, the government is belatedly realizing that it’s on the outside of the most important free-trade deal going these days – the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership – and it wants in. Yet it’s not doing anything to revive stalled free-trade talks with South Korea, putting at risk $1-billion worth of trade.

One of the most anticipated government initiatives is the so-called Beyond Borders deal with the United States. Perimeter security is an ambitious goal, but the deal, slated to be unveiled when Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits Washington in early December, basically starts the clock ticking on a new round of discussions to reduce the regulatory burden at the border and improve security co-operation.

Ottawa is also considering partial deregulation of the domestic wireless business, where foreign-ownership rules limit competition and keep prices to consumers artificially high. However, foreign players say the proposed changes won’t do enough to weaken the grip of the three dominant Canadian players – Bell, Rogers and Telus.

These are all positive steps toward making the Canadian economy more competitive. But they lack ambition – bigness, if you will.

On other critical issues, the government remains vague about its intentions (think health care), or wedded to the status quo (protecting dairy and poultry farmers, for example).

Now is the time to “kick-start” the conversation, as the Canada 2020 report puts it.

Majorities are a precious thing to waste.

Follow on Twitter: @barriemckenna

 
Live Discussion of false on StockTwits
More Discussion on false

Topics:

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories