Do politics always trump policy? Not necessarily, and certainly not in terms of lasting impact. The year was replete with public policy highlights, a number of them potentially "game changers." Here, in descending order, is the Public Policy Forum's Top Ten List of Canadian public policy stories of the year.
10. Federal government decides to purchase F-35 fighter jets
The July announcement that the government would purchase 65 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin signalled the largest single military contract in Canadian history - a sole-sourced $9-billion purchase with up to $7-billion more in maintenance. The decision sparked a furor over Canadian defence and foreign policy, as well as questions about spending and procurement processes.
9. Senate rejects House bill on climate change
In a surprise move in mid-November, the Senate voted down an opposition bill, the Climate Change Accountability Act (Bill C-311), which had been previously approved by the House of Commons. It was the first time in more than 70 years that the unelected Senate killed legislation passed by the other chamber. Coming a few weeks before the Cancun conference on climate change, it raised the ire of opposition parties.
8. Maclean's magazine names Quebec 'Most Corrupt Province in Canada'
When Maclean's ran its controversial cover story in September, it set off a firestorm of controversy in Quebec City and in Ottawa, for which the magazine's owners, Rogers Publishing, eventually apologized. But there was no denying that the story hit a raw nerve, following years of revelations of corruption and ethical malpractice in the province. At the end of November, Premier Jean Charest announced plans to establish an anti-corruption agency, stopping short of a full public inquiry, to help quell a crisis of governance in Quebec.
7. Canada loses bid for Security Council seat at the UN
In spite of a last-ditch effort to curry favour with UN members, Canada's bid to secure a seat on the UN Security Council was decisively rejected in October. This was especially humbling, given that each time Canada had sought such representation in the past, our bid was easily approved. Coming during a year when Canada had hosted the Winter Olympics and the G8/G20 summits, the rejection was widely seen as a sign that our international reputation and influence have diminished.
6. Bill to scrap long-gun registry is defeated
In September, a government private member's bill to eliminate the 15-year-old long-gun registry was narrowly defeated in the House of Commons. The vote demonstrated the ability of the opposition parties to defeat the government when united and also revealed deep divisions over policy between urban and rural Canadians. The controversy over this issue will almost certainly continue.
5. Federal government cancels the long-form census
In July, the federal government announced its surprise plan to cancel the long-form census, which will be replaced with a voluntary national household survey. The rationale provided was that the census represented an intrusion into Canadians' lives and that the penalties for not completing the census (i.e. possible jail terms) were overly harsh. Many Canadian leaders, interest groups and members of civil society opposed the decision, which also led to the resignation of the Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh. The decision sparked a lively debate about the utility, cost and value of research-based public policy.
4. Sale of New Brunswick Power to Hydro-Québec is aborted
In March, the provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec announced the end to an earlier agreement to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec. This $3.2-billion deal represented a potentially important effort to reduce New Brunswick's deficit and enhance Hydro-Québec's ability to market electricity exports to the U.S. However, the Liberal premier, Shawn Graham, failed to successfully engage the public on the issue, which almost certainly contributed to the defeat of his government in September's provincial election.
3. Bipartisan agreement extends Afghan mission
In advance of the planned February, 2011, pullout of Canadian military forces in Afghanistan, the federal government announced in November a transition to a non-combat training role, with an extension to 2014. The decision was made with no debate or vote in the Commons, but saw the governing Conservatives and opposition Liberals negotiate the agreement in a rare instance of bipartisanship in Ottawa.
2. B.C. and Ontario implement HST
This year saw the introduction of the harmonized sales tax in both British Columbia and Ontario. While new taxes are never embraced, few anticipated that populist protests in B.C. would result in a crisis in governance and the end of Gordon Campbell's career as premier. The introduction of the HST in B.C. represented a significant broken political promise; in Ontario, under very different circumstances, the full impact of the HST remains to be seen or fully understood.
1. Federal government rejects hostile takeover of Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan
In November, the federal government rejected the Australian mining giant BHP Billiton's $40-billion hostile takeover of Potash Corp., indicating that the acquisition would not provide a net benefit to Canada. This decision to deny what would have been the largest corporate takeover in Canadian history is only the second-ever rejection of a foreign acquisition and has important policy implications. No doubt, the initiative of the Saskatchewan provincial government led by Premier Brad Wall was decisive in galvanizing opposition to the hostile takeover of Potash Corp., ensuring the federal government's rejection. The decision, however, raised serious questions about the lack of clarity and transparency in rules related to foreign takeovers of Canadian companies.
In addition, the paramount role of provincial governments with respect to natural resources has been strongly reinforced. And that's why this is the top Canadian public policy story of 2010.
David J. Mitchell is president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum.