Ends Versus The Means

Commentary, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

In the latest round of its perennial search for identity, the New Democratic Party faces stark choices. Many in its ranks long for the old-time religion, but wiser heads liken that to jumping off an electoral cliff. They point to the success of the “third way” embraced by European social democrats, who concede the value of free trade and the market economy as mechanisms capable of producing the wealth they want to harness to good works. Former Manitoban Les Campbell typifies this new mould.

Once chief of staff to national leader Audrey McLaughlin, and before that an advisor to Gary Doer, Campbell is now a regional director with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a Washington-based think tank that promotes democratic reform in lesser-developed countries. From this vantage point, he has concluded that open borders and the market economy are the most productive way to achieve social and economic progress.

Campbell notes that modern social democratic parties now accept the overwhelming evidence that economic growth originating in the private sector is the most efficient tool for raising living standards. Rather than attacking “capitalism” as the source of society’s underlying problems, they have embraced it and now focus on distributing the bounty it creates.

The Social Democrats under German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, for instance, sponsored major corporate tax cuts and privatized and deregulated the electricity and telephone industries. Both the post office and the railways are heading in the same direction as policy makers set the stage for a competitive mail system and the injection of private money into new rail infrastructure. The architects of the efficient German health-care system have offered to help the Blair government chop its waiting lists in Britain’s overstretched National Health Service. They use a parallel public-private model and are planning to privatize many public hospitals.

In France, a quarter of the hospitals and most of the ambulance service are privately owned. A private company provides fire protection services in Denmark. In the Netherlands, three-quarters of primary and secondary pupils attend schools that are publicly financed but privately run, mainly by non-profit organizations. Wim Kok, Holland’s Prime Minister and leader of the Dutch Labour Party, orchestrated major spending cuts and, despite his history as the former leader of the Dutch Trade Union Confederation, adopted policies that created a more flexible labour market. The Dutch economy has grown almost 50% faster than that of its neighbours and unemployment has plunged far below the continental average.

Like the Scandinavian countries, Holland is a sophisticated trading nation. It created high living standards and a flexible welfare state by building on its centuries-old tradition of openness. Globalization, the ultimate consequence of a wide-open trading economy, does not frighten its social democrats. “It’s all about not being defensive about change,” Mr Kok recently told the Economist.

Britain’s Tony Blair leads the highest profile “new left” government. Last year, it embraced trade and globalization in an articulate white paper. Subsidies, state ownership of commercial enterprises, heavy labour market regulation — the whole “old labour” policy model — is ancient history. When a colleague advocated renationalization of the electric utilities, Blair brusquely advised him to “grow up.”

School and welfare reform, taboo topics for old left thinkers, are looming on the policy radar screen, as is further privatization of public services. Blair articulated the new social democratic philosophy by musing that people shouldn’t care who delivered the service as long as they got the service. In fact, if the system could not deliver health care within a prescribed time period, the government would invoke a consumer service guarantee and have the needs taken care of elsewhere, by the private system or even hospitals in other countries. In other words, the government would pay for, but not necessarily produce the service.

For Canada, and indeed Manitoba, this is still revolutionary stuff. The hallmark of quality public policy is a focus on the ends of policy, not the means. Fine, let’s have a publicly funded system, but let’s not pretend that a monolithic government provider is the best way to deliver services or that the government needs to own hospitals and schools to achieve superior outcomes.

Les Campbell and like-minded modern social democrats faced an enormous task at the November NDP convention in Winnipeg. While a resolution supporting the “New Politics Initiative”, a faction dominated by union activists and others who vilify the market economy, globalization and biotechnology, was narrowly defeated, many in the NDP continue to see a move to the left of the political spectrum as desirable.

He observed afterwards, “There was a tentative move to more party democracy, as the party adopted a “one member one vote” system for choosing the next leader, which should generate more memberships for the party and add new political blood. A last minute compromise setting aside 25% of votes for union members, though, will dilute the effect and may not break the stranglehold of organized labour and other special interests within the party.”

With the NDP convention dominated by structural issues and backroom feuds, the promised policy debate between modernizers and the left mostly ended up in committee, tabled for future discussion and more study. Campbell feels strongly “that the debate must continue because never has policy modernization been more important — the future of the party and a Canadian institution is at stake.”