Canada


1) It’s time: I have been in the public eye for over 30 years. My children have left home and I want to be free to pursue interests in travel, writing and teaching. The panel is the only thing left in my schedule that tethers me to a place and time. At this stage in life I also feel an increasing burden to “make a difference”. I worked in politics for 18 years and while I’m not proud of everything I did during that time, I’d like to believe I was drawn to the process by a belief in the duty and intrinsic reward of public service. While I have no desire to re-enter the partisan arena, I want the latitude to get involved in issues and causes and express my views freely and unfettered of “journalistic objectivity”.

2) I still have lots to say, but now I need more than 30 seconds to say them: I don’t know if it’s because I’m slowing down or that, with age, I’ve become more reflective but increasingly, I find it difficult to express my views in “sound bites”. I’ve become significantly more aware of the complexity of issues, personalities, events and our country and feel I need more time and space to reflect on these things. Unfortunately television isn’t the best medium for this (not to mention the fact that I am starting to look like the crypt keeper, which also suggests that I would be better off in a non-visual medium).

3) At the end of the day, it’s really not “my thing”: While politics and current affairs have always been a central part of my adult life, they have never been my sole interest or focus. I’ve produced music, television and videos, chaired film festivals, started businesses, written extensively on societal trends, hosted my own television show and delivered countless speeches on an array of subjects from demography, to business and culture. While it might sound vain, throughout my career I have tried to establish a reputation for eclecticism and not allow myself to be pigeon-holed. In the very same way that the panel has unquestionably raised my profile, I also think it has narrowed my band-width. Instead of striving to have a more Hitchens-like perspective on society and I the world, I fear I am being reduced to just another “talking head” yammering about todays headlines.

At the end of the day, it’s been a great ride. I will be eternally grateful that I have been part of the At Issue panel and in particular, I owe a tremendous thanks to my pal, Peter Mansbridge for the central role he played in making that happen… but it’s time to move on.

In 1905, from his small cubicle in a patent office in Zurich, Albert Einstein issues four papers that forever change our understanding of theoretical physics and the functioning of the cosmos. In the same year, Henri Matisse launches an exhibition of garish colours that shocks Paris and spurs Pablo Picasso to move into cubism. Meanwhile, sent by the Royal Geographic Society, Robert Falcon Scott sets off to explore the most remote and formidable corner of the planet – Antarctica.

It was called a “miracle year;” but in many ways, these world-altering feats did not happen miraculously, but as part of a pattern that has been repeated throughout modern history.
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A continued presence in Afghanistan is very unlikely to win the federal Conservative government new converts, but it could very well cause the Conservatives to lose the next election. So the status quo is probably not an option for the government.

A cynic – or a student of public opinion – might have predicted that Canada’s Afghanistan mission was politically doomed from the start.

Since Lester Pearson was awarded the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize, Canadians have had a 50-year love affair with their self-image as “honest brokers,” “a middle power,” and (the most prized and emotionally charged of all) “peacekeepers.” Launching a combat mission in a country that posed neither a tangible threat nor opportunity for Canada and Canadians simply did not resonate with that self-image – indeed, the very act of fighting affronts our notion of Canada as “the peaceable kingdom.”
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Allan Gregg returns to CBC News At Issue Panel from openflows on Vimeo

THE UNFINISHED CANADIAN
The People We Are
By Andrew Cohen
McClelland & Stewart,
270 pages, $29.99
REVIEWED BY ALLAN GREGG

As the title suggests, journalist turned academic Andrew Cohen sees Canadians as “unfinished,” a species whose insularity and self-satisfaction have prevented us from achieving our full national potential.

So that we can “become a more confident, more accomplished people,” he offers a plan. To become “future Canadians,” we need to rediscover our past by establishing national standards for teaching history and celebrating historic occasions. A more “mature” relationship with the United States, in which we would no longer fear absorption but harness our mutual interests to our mutual benefit is also prescribed. Our sense of civic-mindedness and creed could be strengthened by placing a higher value on citizenship: making it harder to come by, setting more rigorous standards for its attainment and doing more to integrate new Canadians into our host culture.

Some of Cohen’s medicine would be easy for Canadians to swallow and relatively simple for inspired governments to implement: Honour past and present achievement and achievers; create a culture (and presumably a tax regime) that encourages charity; restore historic buildings, monuments and sites.

Others might be greeted with more controversy and cultural resistance: Become more accepting of both the foibles and importance of our politicians; call on all taxpayers to invest in the national capital region; launch a 21st-century project of national enterprise to spark the collective imagination, as did the building of the railway.

If guiding us to be a better people and a more enriched nation was Cohen’s sole purpose – and if he were prepared to take the time and space to catalogue how we might reach this destination – this would be a laudable and worthy journey. For example, instituting a national historical curriculum would be a worthwhile and appealing initiative, though education is squarely in provincial jurisdiction.

In the same way, the evidence of increasing isolation from the mainstream among Canada’s foreign-born is alarming, and any bold, new thoughts on how to reverse this trend would certainly get my attention.

Sadly, though, Cohen has chosen not to turn his keen mind to these challenges; indeed, re-imagining “the future Canadian,” and offering how we might get there, warrants a scant 19 pages. He dedicates the vast majority of his analysis to tilting at the windmills of Canadian myths and lecturing us about “the people we are.”
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A few years ago, as part of my TV Ontario program, I interviewed Naomi Klein and I asked her how it could be that her contemporaries and generation, who were so obviously connected to the world they lived in, showed no interest – in fact actively eschewed –politics, parties and parliament. Her answer rocked me on my heels. She replied that in her entire adult life, she could not think of one, single initiative that had emanated from government for which she was proud.

My generation associated government with grand initiatives of national enterprise — adopting Medicare, introducing pension and income security reform, repatriating the constitution and enshrining a Charter of Rights and Freedoms or debating the possibilities of guaranteed annual income or using tri-partism to vitalize democracy.

I realized that her generation had no such touchstones and therefore no frame of reference to consider government as our central agent of societal advancement. And they had no such frame of reference not because they were disinterested, anomic slackers, but because there weren’t any.

Right there and then, it dawned on me that public cynicism towards politics and politicians may actually be rational.…that the population has been persuaded that government is bad because for a generation we have been receiving bad government. That by lowering their performance to correspond to the public’s cynical expectations, we have offered ample and concrete evidence that governments are unable (or, as I will argue later, unwilling) to be productive agents of the public good.

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There is a general consensus that Canada has a productivity gap. Yet the issue refuses to capture the public’s imagination or to take a higher priority on the nation’s political agenda. Claims that the sky is falling run contrary to public confidence that the economy is buoyant and resilient. At the same time, there is a widespread view that while prosperity is abundant, it is shared unequally and that in the face of unprecedented growth, the same advocates of productivity stand idly by and allow our social safety net – our health care, education and quality of life in our cities – to unravel.

For most people, increasing productivity involves little more than working harder or personal sacrifice. The perceived beneficiary to increased productivity is business, and therefore it hardly seems like a fair bargain or worthy of pursuit. Even those in government who might recognize that dealing with productivity is good policy are loath to advance the topic with any vigour.

I have moderated Microsoft Canada’s CAN>WIN conference on this topic four times since 2001 and watched some of Canada’s and the world’s brightest minds work their way through this dilemma. The consensus solutions to Canada’s prosperity problem are at once simple and deceptively complex.
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NOTES FOR REMARKS TO THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS ASSOCIATION LUNCH – OCTOBER 24, 2006

….NOW, IF I WAS THE ONLY PUBLIC AFFAIRS PRACTITIONER EVER TO APPEAR ON TELEVISION, IT MIGHT BE BECAUSE IT WAS ME WHO WAS TRULY EXCEPTIONAL – OR PERHAPS EVEN DISTINGUISHED.

BUT THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS THAT, TODAY, THERE ARE LEGIONS OF COMMENTATORS, ANALYSTS, PANELISTS AND SPOKESPEOPLE FROM THE PUBLIC AFFAIRS DISCIPLINE WHO COME, UNINVITED, INTO THE PUBLIC’S LIVING ROOM WITH GREAT REGULARITY.

AND LET’S NOT DELUDE OURSELVES, THIS OCCURS NOT BECAUSE WE ARE SO MUCH MORE TALENTED OR GIFTED THAN INDIVIDUALS IN OTHER PROFESSIONS. IT IS BECAUSE OUR VERY PROFESSION MAKES US INHERENTLY MORE NEWSWORTHY. WE SHOULD ALSO APPRECIATE THAT THE EXULTED POSITION OF OUR PROFESSION IS A RELATIVELY RECENT PHENOMENON.
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Appeared in Sept 2006 issue of The Walrus Magazine

If the British North America Act were being
written today…natural resource ownership
would most likely remain with the federal
government.

– “Policy Options,” October 2005.

It should have been a love fest.

Leading up to the March 30, 2006 Alberta Progressive Conservative Annual General Meeting polls declared Premier Ralph Klein the most popular man in the province, and for good reason. As an expert panel appointed by the former Liberal government, provincial governments, and even the Governor General, all recommended that Alberta share its bountiful riches with the rest of Canada, the tough-talking premier said, essentially, ‘over my dead body.’ It was classic Klein. For years, the premier had been Alberta’s chief defender and his record was impressive. He led the PC Party to four consecutive majority governments, enjoyed over 90 percent approval ratings each time he faced a leadership review, and could boast of a series of accomplishments envied by all other provinces. In 1993, Klein inherited a government bleeding $3.4 billion a year and with an accumulated debt of $23 billion. Thirteen years later, Alberta is Canada’s only debt-free province, the operating surplus for 2006 hovers around $10 billion, and the populist premier can justifiably lay claim to creating “the Alberta Advantage.”
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