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Drew Fagan: Canada’s infrastructure plan should be results-based

Commentary

Over the coming days, The Hub will publish mandate letters for the incoming cabinet ministers that set out a series of bold policy prescriptions that would cumulatively tilt Canadian politics towards a different and better future.

The best antidote to anger and frustration is aspiration and purpose. The campaign has demonstrated how urgently Canada’s body politic needs such a remedy. There’s no time to waste. It’s time to get to work.

Dear Minister of Infrastructure,

I am honoured that you have agreed to serve Canadians as the Minister of Infrastructure.

As you know, our government must have a both a short- and long-term orientation. The immediate priority is to help the country through the COVID-19 pandemic and to catalyse a post-pandemic recovery. Getting Canadian businesses and families to the other end of this crisis is the key to restoring stability and optimism in our economy and society.

Beyond that, though, over the long term, we face many opportunities and challenges including geopolitical instability, aging demographics, climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, long-term fiscal challenges, low productivity, and slow growth.

Each of these issues could easily consume a government’s attention, focus, and resources. But we do not have the luxury of prioritizing one or some of them. They require similar levels of energy and ambition if we are to lay the foundation for a different and better future for Canadians.

An emphasis on the future is a much-needed antidote to the growing anxiety and pessimism in our country. Even before the pandemic, too many Canadians worried that their children will not have the same opportunities and living standards as them. The pandemic has exacerbated these concerns and cast a pall of uncertainty over our economy and society.

In this context, Canadians have grown skeptical of the ability of government to put aside partisan differences or short-term political advantage and make the hard yet necessary choices to mitigate our long-term challenges and accentuate our opportunities. It is incumbent on us to prove to Canadians that their skepticism and doubt is unwarranted. We must rebuild their trust through our actions and choices.

This principle extends to all aspects of governance. Our government must live up to the highest ethical standards, including openness, honesty, and accountability. I expect you to reflect these values in your work. It is critical that we honour Canadians’ trust in us and the history and dignity of the institutions and roles that we occupy.

Our immediate policy priorities flow from the best ideas and rooted in evidence. I ask that you work with your colleagues to deliver on the following key priorities:

  • Chair a sub-committee of the Cabinet Committee on Economy and the Environment focused on national coordination of infrastructure spending, including a results-based focus across the federal government regarding our $187-billion infrastructure plan;
  • Spearhead development of the National Infrastructure Assessment, including by appointing an independent advisory body to oversee the assessment, which is to set a prioritized framework for infrastructure development through 2050 based on the country’s economic, social and environmental needs and interests;
  • Ensure the continued effective delivery of pandemic-related infrastructure programs, such as the COVID-19 resilience stream;
  • Work closely with provinces and territories, and municipalities as appropriate, to advance our urban agenda, such as through the planned Permanent Transit Fund and our commitment to encourage public transit-oriented development;
  • Work closely with your Cabinet colleagues who will lead our priority of Indigenous reconciliation and our initiatives regarding daycare and long-term care, ensuring that the needed capital spending is prioritized;
  • As minister responsible for the arms-length Canada Infrastructure Bank, ensure that it continues to play a critical role in effective infrastructure delivery by marrying public interest development with market-oriented rigour.

I know I can count on you to fulfill these responsibilities and help to deliver a different and better future rooted in prosperity and opportunity for all Canadians.

Robert Asselin: Who will speak for Canada?

Commentary

Every now and then, in moments when as a country we try to engage in some form of national conversation such as a federal election, we are reminded it is easy to replay the last refrain of our collective misunderstandings and fault lines.

In a sobering article published last week in the Hub, Howard Anglin made the case that the results of the federal election are yet another manifestation that our country is one made of many solitudes.

“At the extremes, in parts of the Prairies and Quebec, the differences are so great that one is tempted to conclude that it is not so much a matter of misunderstanding each other as no longer being interested in understanding each other,” wrote Anglin.

It’s tough to argue with him when you look at the numbers. Four out of five Canadians eligible to vote chose not to vote for the winning party in last week’s federal election.

In the end, 32.6 percent of 62.2 percent of Canadians who went to the polls voted for the Liberal Party of Canada, which comes down to less than 20 percent of eligible voters.

The distribution of seats shows a stunning regional/rural/urban divide. The Conservatives didn’t win a single seat in Canada’s three biggest cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Similarly, the Liberals were not competitive in roughly one-third of the ridings, most of those west of Ontario.

It is often said that Canada is an unachieved experiment. At best, our diversity, exemplified by our federalism, brings some healthy tension and allows for reasoned and pragmatic governance. At worst, Canada is a never-ending family dispute.

Like siblings who don’t get along, we sit at the dinner table silently and eat as fast as we can so that we can go back separately to our rooms. Our vast geography makes it easy to ignore each other.

As someone born and raised in Québec, I’ve watched federalist Quebecers running for federal seats only to advocate more “powers” to the government of Québec and caring very little about what the federal government can do well within its own jurisdiction. They are so consumed by delivering on new “Quebec demands” that one wonders why they wouldn’t just make the choice to run for a seat at the National Assembly.

It has always made little sense to me to see a federalist wanting to represent Quebecers in the Parliament of Canada arguing that the federal government has no or little relevance and value in their fellow citizens’ lives. It is also hard to explain to Canadians from other provinces why they should have less influence on Quebecers lives than Quebecers have on theirs.

For all the money that was spent and committed at the federal level over the last 18 months, one wonders why we are still nowhere near meeting our international obligations on defence and international aid and are left out of strategic agreements such as the one the Biden administration just signed with the U.K. and Australia.

On national unity, a lot of people think the answer resides somewhere on the nexus between decentralization and centralization of our federation. If only we could “decentralize” and give more money and powers to provinces, or if only the federal government could be more assertive in provincial areas like health care and child care, all would be fine.

It’s a legitimate debate but I think it misses the point on our lack of national unity. What is needed now is a mix of ambition and resolve and an understanding that the path forward will be difficult. I bet an ambitious agenda rooted in federal powers that transcends parochialism would go a long way with Canadians.

When President John F. Kennedy challenged his fellow citizens to send a man on the moon in September 1962, it was relevant to all Americans. He also acknowledged that this challenge was worthwhile not because it was easy, but because it was hard. At one point someone needs to speak for the idea of what Canada can do. Constantly arguing that we have less and less in common will lead to a heap of ruins.

It turns out there are no shortage of big undertakings for our country to consider. A renewed sense of purpose for our country would give Canadians a change of scenery from federal-provincial battlefields and existing regional tensions.

We could set a long-term ambitious economic growth agenda to ensure Canadian living standards are not declining over time. Harvard Economist Benjamin Friedman wrote in The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth: “Economic growth — meaning a rising standard of living for the clear majority of citizens — more often than not fosters greater opportunity, tolerance of diversity, social mobility, commitment to fairness, and dedication to democracy.”

On world affairs, the time has come to transition from our Pearsonian idealism nostalgia and pivot to define and act on our national interests in this new era of geo-economics. The end of the Washington consensus is surely one of the most formidable challenges Canada has faced in the last half century on the world stage. As we celebrate the return of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, we must learn the hard lessons of this new chacun pour soi world order.

We could also make Canada one of the most innovative economies on earth by embracing science and technology. We have an opportunity to tackle significant challenges such as climate change and create wealth for millions of Canadians. Despite its small size and dense population, the Netherlands makes far more food than it can eat. This is how a nation that was once starving under the Nazis has now become a world leader in farming techniques and agriculture technologies. There is no reason Canada cannot leverage its private sector ingenuity and become a world leader in the three techs: clean tech, ag-tech and life and bio science tech.

Let’s choose to turn our attention to big, ambitious challenges over bitter recriminations and self-fulfilling prophecies of regional and identity grievances. It’s time to speak to the idea of what Canada can achieve.