As a New Year dawns, I'm reminded of Alexander Pope's immortal words: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast."
My three wishes for Canada were the same in both 2011 and 2012. Despite being disappointed on my hopes for past years, I take heart that 2013 may bring progress.
The first was that private sector efficiency and innovation would be introduced into our teetering, bureaucratic government-run health care system. As patients suffer on ever-growing wait lists, Canada remains the only OECD country where it's against the law for patients to pay for their own health care.
Regrettably, 2012 saw a step backward as British Columbia launched court action to shut down Dr. Brian Day's private clinics, which have provided relief for hundreds of patients, while reducing public system costs and shortening waiting lists. The reality is that health care is devouring an ever larger share of provincial revenues. If we don't act now, education and other social programs will face huge cutbacks. My hope for 2013 is that politicians find the vision and the courage to grant freedom of choice to patients and to health-care providers.
My second wish was that Canadian universities move beyond their dysfunctional "academic independence" paradigm and reallocate funding to fields critical to our country's economic future. Yet in 2012, the "skills gap" saw increasing numbers of unfilled jobs co-exist with high youth unemployment, while growing numbers of university graduates worked in low-skills jobs.
The number of university graduates turning to jobs-focused colleges increased, meaning taxpayers are paying to educate students not once, but twice. A report by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives concluded that this educational mismatch is causing the country to fall behind in the global skills race. A Canadian Chamber of Commerce report cited a "desperate labour shortage" as the No. 1 obstacle to the growth of Canadian companies. Meanwhile, OECD data show that Canada has one of the world's highest rates of university attendance, but our schools rank second-last in producing graduates able to find high-skill-level employment. And every year, failure to prioritize funding of in-demand skills means that thousands of qualified applicants are turned away from engineering, information technology, medicine and other skills-short fields.
My third wish was for our provinces to take concrete steps to get their finances under control. Yet, once again, debt and deficits grew in every province except Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador. With a per-capita debt of more than $21,000, Quebec incurred a deficit of $1.5-billion despite federal equalization and other transfers totalling $17-billion. Ontario, whose debt increased by $16-billion to more than a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars, is now a "have-not" province receiving $3-billion in equalization. That leaves just British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland to fund equalization.
A recent study by Don Mackinnon for the Frontier Centre presents a compelling conclusion that equalization dooms its recipients to economic dysfunction and dependency.
Whether it's the failing economies of southern Europe or of these provinces, it's clear that government debt cannot be contained in the presence of unsustainable social programs combined with incentive-killing subsidies. My hope is that 2013 will mark the beginning of an end to our country's counterproductive and economically debilitating equalization system.
Internationally, my hope for 2012 was that the so-called Arab Spring in the Middle East wouldn't "unleash a tyranny of the majority wherein the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are undefended." Sadly, the introduction of Egypt's new Islamic-slanted constitution does exactly that. My hope for 2013 is that leaders of nascent democracies come to understand that true democracy means not just the right to vote, but the right to freedom of religion and to freedom from ethnic persecution.
Hope springs eternal, for without hope, we have nothing.
Editor's note: The province of Quebec projects a deficit of $1.5-billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year. An earlier version of this column suggested incorrectly that the deficit in Quebec was $10-billion. This version has been corrected.