These things do go in cycles, but at the moment, almost all the interesting developments in politics and policy in Canada are taking place at the provincial and municipal level, rather than in Ottawa.
Ottawa is governed by a Conservative Prime Minister who doesn't like visionary politics, sweeping change or engaging citizens in debate. Not for him what U.S. President Barack Obama calls "teachable moments" in public life.
Stephen Harper doesn't demand sacrifice of Canadians, avoids hard choices wherever possible, sticks to a script, doesn't address broad themes, buttons up the lips of his ministers and the entire bureaucracy, and carries on incrementally where possible. That's who he is. That's how he governs. And his supporters think this way of proceeding to be just fine. Politically, the country is stuck just where it was when the Conservatives were first elected.
The Conservatives have a few themes, one of which is to be "tough on crime." But there is a difference between being tough on crime and being stupid about crime, a difference the Conservatives have not learned. Most of the policies are useless or counterproductive, as almost every expert in the field will attest. And they will cost way, way more than the Conservatives have blithely suggested, as the Parliamentary Budget Office is about to explain in a report next week. But these deeply simplistic policies apparently sell well in a society bombarded by news media coverage of crime in the face of falling crime rates.
The Conservatives have a fiscal plan: Whittle away at government spending increases while hoping that modest restraint and the resumption of economic growth will eventually balance the budget. And they do propose big changes to refugee policy that are sensible, on balance, and are being deservedly well-received. But apart from these areas, it's a rather reactive, do-nothing government.
Parliament, egged on by the media and opposition, is almost completely out of touch with what Canadians are interested in. The Helena Guergis-Rahim Jaffer affair resonates nowhere beyond 100 metres of Parliament Hill and the Afghan detainee affair, dealing with matters that took place years ago, is of little concern to the vast majority.
Talk to citizens about health care, energy, climate change, education, social justice or the future of their country and communities, and people just might listen. But in Ottawa, almost nothing related to these issues figures in discussion or policy. Indeed, in the field of climate change, the federal government is led by a Prime Minister who hates the issue and whose government has largely ceded policy to the U.S. Congress, a rather ignoble position for a self-respecting state.
At the provincial level, however, exciting and controversial things are happening. The policies might not all be correct, but they display a certain political courage by governments to engage citizens and make hard choices.
Provinces are on the front line of the climate change and energy debates, in part because the federal government wants no part of a national approach. British Columbia has green taxes and a renewable energy strategy. Ontario proposes higher flow-through hydro rates for solar and wind energy. Nova Scotia is advancing with tidal power. (In a less happy way, the debilitating stalemate between Newfoundland and Quebec endures over Labrador's hydroelectric power development and transmission, and a proposed mega-hydro deal between Quebec and New Brunswick just cratered.)
Some municipalities are working to green their cities, with everything from new hybrid buses to better building codes. It's revealing and encouraging to note how many provincial and federal politicians are leaving to run municipally. For people who want action in important policy fields, the provincial and municipal levels look inviting - and relevant.
The situation is the same with health care, a field where Ottawa writes cheques and shuts up. All provinces are wrestling with how to curb higher costs, and in so doing are challenging vested interests or the general citizenry. That's the backdrop to Ontario's proposed reductions in generic drug-company payments to pharmacies, and to Quebec's proposed dedicated health-care taxes and point-of-payment fees for seeing a doctor.
We could go on listing areas of interesting debate and innovation at the provincial and municipal levels: junior kindergarten, urban transit, social integration. There's political ferment that could lead to political change in B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
The contrast to Ottawa is sharp.