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An ambulance arrives at a Quebec hospital. (Ryan Remiorz/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
An ambulance arrives at a Quebec hospital. (Ryan Remiorz/Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Gwyn Morgan

Three key fixes needed for a stronger economy Add to ...

The early days of a new year are a good time to remember how fortunate Canadians are to live in one of the world's best countries. It's also a good time to think about what we need to do to keep it so. Here is my wish list for the year ahead:

Overhaul the health-care system

When will Canadians face the reality that the lack of access to doctors, dangerous emergency rooms, excessive hospital waiting times, and far too many of what hospital administrators call "preventable adverse events" have reached unacceptable levels? The system's performance continues to decline even as costs spiral upward, devouring a huge and ever-increasing share of government spending. Yet we continue to hear that we have one of the best health-care systems in the world.

The 2010 Euro-Canada Health Consumer Index analysis demonstrates the sad truth. Despite the fourth-highest per capita spending, Canada's health-care system ranked 25th when compared with 33 European countries. Tellingly, Canada is the only country that puts up legal barriers to private treatment options. It's time to move beyond the myth that publicly financed health care should be delivered by a monopoly of government-run hospitals and clinics. My wish for 2011 is that we finally move beyond this failed paradigm and free our health-care providers to compete on the basis of quality, value and service.

Reinvent the universities

Canadian universities continue to turn out large numbers of graduates with unemployable knowledge, while failing to train enough in professions critical to our economic future. This not only relegates hundreds of thousands of disillusioned graduates to menial jobs and dead-end careers, but also turns away large numbers of motivated, capable applicants from fields needed for our country to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's "Education at a Glance 2010" compared university graduates on the basis of whether they landed jobs that actually utilize their education. Some 38 per cent of Canadian graduates between the ages of 25 and 29 were found to be "working at a low skill level," the second-worst result of the 11 countries surveyed. If we are to maintain our privileged living standard and social programs, this needs to change dramatically.

Rising demand for engineers, applied mathematicians, technologists and systems analysts, for example, reflects the complexity of the modern world. And a shortage of health-care professionals including doctors, radiologists, dentists, nurses and long-term care workers reflects the needs of an aging population. My wish for 2011 is that Canadian universities, and the governments that fund them, recognize the urgent need to reallocate scarce financial resources to those fields that offer fulfilling careers and are crucial to Canada's economic success.

Get provincial finances under control

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty recently warned that Canada risks a European-style debt crisis unless our provinces set a firm course toward balanced budgets. Ontario, with a projected 2010-2011 deficit of $18.7-billion, recently released a financial forecast that calls for continued deficit spending through 2017, driving debt to a staggering $275-billion, or $17,000 per capita. At more than 50 per cent, Quebec's debt-to-GDP ratio is Canada's highest. Across the country, provinces are financing core programs, including health care and education, with borrowed money. Borrowing from the next generation is both unsustainable and unfair.

Most alarming is that, led by Ontario, so-called deficit reduction plans rely upon rosy forecasts of increased revenues, rather than spending cuts. The chances of such a fortuitous outcome are remote, to put it mildly. Why? Because our most important trading partner is in for a long, grinding, protectionist-oriented recovery, while our strong dollar presents serious competitive difficulties for both exporters and the hospitality sector. Fairy-tale provincial forecasting is fuelling a dangerous complacency; provinces aren't taking the actions needed to ensure they avoid the disastrous financial wall facing several European Union states. My wish for 2011 is to see provincial governments move off of this dangerous course and embrace fiscal realism and prudence.

Achieving my three wishes for 2011 will require courageous and visionary leadership from our elected leaders, and active support from Canadians who understand that what is at stake is nothing less than keeping our country safe from the economic crises and decline faced by many other developed nations.

 

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