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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Having a variety of voices in the Liberal leadership race will be good for the party, but whoever wins will have to borrow heavily from the others to win back voters

As most predicted, the Liberal leadership contest has turned into a packed race. The absence of an obvious front-runner has excited the aspirations, ambitions and, in some cases, the delusions of contenders who otherwise might have stayed in the starting gate.

Listening to their early declarations, it is apparent that the regional, gender and generational diversity of the candidates is going to be matched by the strategies they hope to employ — first to win the contest and presumably, thereafter, the country.
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Today’s cynical voters actually care more about issues than yesterday’s partisans, so a campaign of ideas for the Liberal leadership could win some back

Scant weeks before Auditor General Sheila Fraser transferred her “outrage” over the sponsorship scandal to the Canadian electorate, private polling suggested that Paul Martin and his Liberal party were headed toward the largest electoral majority on record. Twenty-six months later, his term in government has been relegated to a modest footnote in Canadian history books, Stephen Harper occupies his office in the Langevin block and, as his former followers set out to elect his successor, the very future of the Liberal party has become a question mark.

Without doubt, this massive change in fortune underscores the incendiary impact of the Gomery inquiry. In no small measure it probably also reflects tactical and strategic errors that Mr. Martin’s Liberals made while in government and over the course of two federal campaigns. Much more telling however, Mr. Martin’s descent reflects a political culture where attachment to partisan choice is so tenuous that no political party’s fortunes can be guaranteed beyond the next calendar year.
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Originally appeared in March 2006 Walrus Magazine

Under the cover of normalcy, on July 7, 2005, the heart of London was bombed and dozens of people were killed by young Muslim men who had grown up in the same environment as their victims. The process of acculturation – at British schools, and, one presumed, local pubs or Soho restaurants – had failed, and Britons were left to wonder how a cluster of radicals dedicated to terrorism and to distant ideologies could grow out of the soil we all share.

In another sign that all is not well in our diverse cities, four months later the outskirts of Paris erupted in spontaneous violence. On the night of October 27th, French police chased a group of teenagers who had ventured out of their Arab neighbourhood into the leafy suburbs of Livey-Garzan. Two of them were electrocuted while attempting to hide in a power generation facility, and within twenty-four hours this tragic accident turned the streets of Clichy-sous-Bois (and adjacent communities) into a cauldron of violence. In a scene reminiscent of Detroit or Los Angeles during the 1960s race riots, over 9,000 cars and 200 buildings were torched and France has been on edge ever since. An orchestrated attack by a terrorist cabal had besieged London, but in France something equally ominous had occurred: entire neighbourhoods comprised of poor and alienated immigrants protested their sense of isolation through wanton destruction.

Then, six weeks after the French riots, half-way around the world roughly 5,000 white Australians took to the beaches of Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, to attack people of Middle-Eastern origin locally referred to as “sand niggers.” Organized through text messaging and the Internet, this was a planned assault by aggrieved whites demanding, essentially, a return to Australia’s “whites only” immigration policy. The country had abandoned this openly racist approach to immigration in 1973 and today, together with Canada, Australia has the most aggressive per capita immigration targets in the world. Indeed, prior to last November’s outbreak of sectarian violence it also had a growing international reputation for peaceful integration. The thugs who descended on Cronulla, obviously, did not endorse this national self-image.
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Churches across Canada are flush with born-again converts, and awakening from a long political slumber. Why the Canadian left needs to duft off its Bible.

Lately, the forces of organized Christianity have been throwing their weight around in the political arena. Both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have been threatened from the pulpit with eternal damnation for supporting same-sex marriage. Other MPs have suffered more than mere threats,finding themselves cast out of their parishes. In early summer, headlines announced that Christian activists were capturing Conservative party nominations on both coasts and singled out a Presbyterian minister, Tristan Emmanuel, for recommending “Christian, pro-family people” as preferred candidates to his audiences. Emmanuel, the founder of the Equipping Christians for the Public Square Centre in southern Ontario, travels across Canada to spread the message that Jesus commands Christians to be politically engaged. These developments in Christian circles (to say nothing of those within other faiths) have many voters and pundits calling for reinforcements to the “great wall” separating church and state.

Christianity’s new ascendancy is a broad North American phenomenon, and anyone keeping score would have to conclude that, increasingly, the religious are thumping the secularists. In the United States, born-again President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 — at least in part — by setting out to register four million new evangelical Christian voters. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ, derided by mainstream critics as everything from unwatchable to anti-Semitic, pulled in $370 million at the box office, the same total as Spider-Man 2. Author Rick Warren ’s quasi-evangelical The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? has racked up sales of more than 20 million copies worldwide and almost one million in Canada — though it was not even acknowledged on most bestseller lists.

Read the rest of this article (pdf)

Our outrage over a dwindling sum of abused money is damaging Canadians’ perceptions of politicians and public servants

Justice John Gomery’s first report provides ample opportunity for those who wish to add their voices to the howls of outrage over “the biggest scandal in Canadian history” (according to Opposition leader Stephen Harper).

However, Judge Gomery offers another service that should cause blood to flow, not just into our throats, but also to our heads, for the complete picture he paints now allows us — for the first time — to give more precise measure to the scandal that has been seizing the political imagination for almost two years.

That there was something amiss in the communications-contracting operation of Public Works was known for some time. An internal audit in 1996 was followed by another in 2000 that discovered continued “administrative irregularities” in the tendering and payment of sponsorship programs.

Alerting her fine nose for unearthing dirt, the audit drew the attention of Auditor General Sheila Fraser who turned her flinty gaze to the department in her 2003 report. Obviously not garnering the attention she was seeking — and notwithstanding the fact that the RCMP had already been called in to investigate criminal wrongdoing in the case — Ms. Fraser chose to report on the scandal in more detail once again in February 2004, this time adding her editorial “outrage” about the breaking of “every rule in the book.” This seemed to have the desired effect and the political agenda has been cast in the shadow of Adscam ever since.
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Even Albertans and Quebeckers are showing a profound commitment to the nation, say politicos Peter Donolo and Allan Gregg

From the Manitoba schools question in the 1890s to the 1995 Quebec referendum, Canada’s peaceable history has been punctuated by regional conflicts that threatened to tear the country apart. Such tensions are evident to this day and often dominate the national agenda. Whether it is Newfoundland’s Premier, Danny Williams, banishing the Canadian flag to protest Ottawa’s “betrayal” over offshore resources or Alberta Premier Ralph Klein telling the rest of Canada to “keep your hands off” his province’s oil, regional grievances have come to be accepted as a permanent part of the Canadian condition.

It’s high time Canadians see past the clichés and recognize that when these grievances surface, they are often a function of self-serving sabre-rattling rather than a lack of commitment to the nation; a misconstrued stereotype rather than any deep animosity by citizens in one region toward those in another.

A good example is the most recent survey we conducted for The Globe and Mail and CTV, released last week. It reveals a reality — particularly regarding Alberta and Quebec — that is much more nuanced than the rhetoric we often hear from politicians and political commentators. The results show a level of commitment to Canada by those provinces that belies the long-held view of Quebec and Alberta as the “crybabies” of Confederation.
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