The High Risk of Poor Policy

Worth A Look, Role of Government, Frontier Centre

Only a year ago, Prime Minister Paul Martin was brimming with ambitious ideas for what he called “the politics of achievement.” But the enthusiasm and ambition of those early days was quickly swamped by the morass of the sponsorship scandal. An election once expected to produce a Liberal triumph of historic proportions turned into a desperate lunge to hang on to a minority.

The legacy of this campaign goes beyond the obvious fact that any legislation now has to win the support of at least two parties. It has created a curious dynamic in which the two largest parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, have become inward-looking and cautious, leaving room for individual Members of Parliament across all parties to seize the initiative.

As I predicted last January, the Liberal party swung left in the lead-up to the election, making major promises to spend large sums of money directly and indirectly on social programs. The minority outcome has effectively locked the government into delivering on these promises. Indeed, the government’s actions to date suggest it is hoping that simply ticking off the boxes on its promises will be enough to pave the way back to a majority when the next election is called.

Beyond the sheer scale of the government’s spending promises, there is another troubling aspect to its list. Almost all of the money is being devoted to increasing the federal presence in areas of provincial jurisdiction: health care, child care, equalization and transfers to municipalities. All but lost in the shuffle are core federal responsibilities in areas such as economic competitiveness, national defence and international trade and development.

Even the large projected surplus for the current fiscal year does not leave a great deal of room to move beyond the campaign promises on social spending, and the result has been an effective moratorium on big new ideas from the government side of the House.

This situation has created a policy vacuum, one that creates a clear opportunity for the newly merged Conservative party to stake out some policy ground and establish an image as a distinct but broadly based alternative. However, the success of the Liberals during the last two weeks of the campaign in using negative advertising to tar the Conservatives as extremist has had a lingering impact. Once bitten, twice shy: Many Conservatives seem worried that if they take the initiative in advancing bold policy ideas, the Liberals again will win points and reinforce their image as the party of the moderate middle by attacking them as extreme.

The result is that Conservative Leader Stephen Harper has kept a remarkably low profile in recent months. He was forced into last year’s election with little time to articulate a detailed policy platform, and subsequently decided to wait until March of this year to hold the new party’s first policy convention.

This delay has had the benefit of giving people from both wings of the party time to find common ground, but it also has increased the pressure to produce a compelling vision capable of rallying enough support across the country to propel the party into power. In the meantime, the absence of such a vision has left partisans in both the former Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative camps a bit skittish and has inhibited the ability of the merged party to create a real sense of excitement and dynamism. With both leading parties thus avoiding risky moves, the House of Commons has been left to grind through a large number of bills but few issues of great substance.

The four-party minority parliament has led to some significant procedural changes. More bills are now being referred to committee at the draft stage, giving MPs from all parties more room to shape legislation. The fact that the opposition parties together control a majority of each committee in turn has opened the door to some genuinely constructive debate and freewheeling give-and-take. But with so few issues of consequence coming to committees, the very forces that are prompting the parties and their leaders to be cautious are driving individual MPs to be more adventurous.

In effect, the American maxim that “all politics is local” has come to Canada with a vengeance. Individual MPs also know they could face a new election campaign at any time. What is more, many seem to feel that they cannot count on the coattails either of their leader or of their party’s brand to propel them to victory. As a result, they are deliberately seeking greater individual profile by championing issues that matter to their particular constituents.

MPs therefore are bringing forward private member’s bills, motions and amendments that are politically attractive on the surface and are capable of winning the support of a majority of a committee or of the House as a whole. What is worrying is that such motions are coming to a vote without the background research and thinking about possible unintended consequences that go into government-driven legislation.

This situation is particularly dangerous to the business community because such individual initiatives can have complex legislative or regulatory consequences with the potential to do serious economic damage in ways their well-meaning proponents may never have considered. This has made it imperative for business associations such as ours to keep close tabs on the legislative and committee agenda and to be ready to step in quickly with expert advice.

I do not want to leave the impression that minority government is inherently either unstable or unhealthy. But after decades without practice in managing the dynamics of minority government and in the absence of forceful leadership from party heads, there is a real risk that the benefits of more open debate and creative crafting of legislation could be undermined by a perception that minorities lead to impulsive decisions and poor policy choices.

Thomas d’Aquino is chief executive officer of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. He made these remarks in Toronto yesterday, in a speech to his organization’s New Year Members’ Meeting.