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Sean Speer: Can Pierre Poilievre kickstart the pro-growth agenda Canada desperately needs?


A sign of an astute politician is the ability to discern the big challenges facing his or her society and then to develop a compelling policy narrative and coherent governing agenda that responds to them. Think of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New DealNew Deal, domestic program of the administration of U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) between 1933 and 1939, which took action to bring about immediate economic relief as well as reforms in industry, agriculture, finance, waterpower, labour, and housing, vastly increasing the scope of the federal government’s activities.” as a left-wing example or Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution“While inspired by the “Red Book”, the Common Sense Revolution was a decidedly right wing and populist document, promising broad tax cuts (30 percent) and less government. Not only a successful campaign document, the Common Sense Revolution became a governing template for eight years – and two majority mandates – of Harris government.” as a right-wing one. 

Conservative party leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre has made the idea of “gatekeepers” a key part of his early campaign message. It has the potential to similarly connect an overarching political narrative and accompanying policies to what may be the most pressing economic issue facing Canada: supply-driven stagflation caused in some part by sclerotic regulatory institutions and processes.

The basic notion of the gatekeepers is that a combination of bureaucratic inertia and intransigence has come to stand in the way of new housing construction, public transit and other community infrastructure, and natural resource projects obtaining regulatory approval and getting built. 

According to this political economy diagnosis, we’ve effectively created a policy environment in which the physical economy—what Peter Thiel refers to as the “world of atoms” as opposed to the “world of bytes”—is mired by red tape, endless consultations, and multiple and overlapping project approvals.  

One of the strengths of this message is it’s substantively correct. There’s considerable evidence, for instance, that Canada underperforms its peers on construction timelines and costs, drug approval timelines, and policy-induced housing costs

Just consider that Canada presently ranks 34th of 35 OECD countries for the length of time to obtain general construction permits.“It takes nearly 250 days to get a permit in Canada – three times (168 days) longer than our competitors in the United States. In the OECD, only the Slovak Republic takes longer.” This has contributed to, among other things, the dubious distinction of being home to the fewest homes per capita of any G7 country and a national average house price of $816,720 and counting. 

Due in large part to the tangibility of these outcomes, Poilievre’s critique of the gatekeepers has the potential to be a politically potent message. As Ben Woodfinden recently wrote for The Hub, it appeals to a significant mix of core conservative voters, populists, younger Canadians, and those who increasingly feel “left behind.” This constellation of voters could form the basis of a broad-based coalition capable of competing for national power. 

Poilievre’s message has tended to focus on housing, which is intuitive both because of the magnitude of the supply-driven price increases (20 percent year-over-year) and the issue’s political salience. But there’s scope to extend his narrative more broadly to describe how government policy —from drug approvals to occupational licensing—is contributing to artificial scarcity across the entire economy. 

This point is worth underscoring: Poilievre is not only on the right track but, if anything, he may be underestimating the relevance, scope, and appeal of his gatekeeper narrative. He can draw on a growing intellectual and political movement calling for a new supply-side agenda—what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson has defined as an “abundance agenda”—as a much-needed response to today’s twin economic challenges of rising inflation and slow growth. 

These “new industrialists”, as Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith has called them, come from different political persuasions and intellectual backgrounds but they share one common idea: we need to unshackle the modern economy so we can build and produce more stuff. 

Their basic insight is that the progressive focus on demand-side policies—namely, redistributionist changes to the tax and transfer system—may advance certain equity goals but they’re no substitute for a pro-growth policy agenda.“Canada’s economic sluggishness long predates the COVID-19 crisis. The rate of economic growth has been falling decade-over-decade for the past fifty years. Average annual GDP growth per decade between 1960 and 2000 was 4.08 percent. It has been just 1.99 percent since the start of this century.” As a matter of economics, redistribution without growth is a recipe for stagflation. And, as a matter of politics, it’s a recipe for populism, polarization, and a diminished sense of progress. 

The unofficial manifesto of the “Building More Stuff” movement may be a 2020 essay by leading American venture capitalist Marc Andreessen entitled “It’s Time to Build”. It set out a comprehensive critique of the failings of Western economies to build and produce in the physical economy. In response, Andreessen called for a new Left-Right political consensus in favour of “building.”

Since then, such a consensus has started to take shape. Leading thinkers including New York Times columnist Ezra Klein, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, and even Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have endorsed a new supply-side agenda focused on boosting production in key sectors such as advanced manufacturing, clean energy technologies, agriculture and agri-food, and biomedicine. 

The policy expression of the “abundance agenda” is the subject of some debate. Depending on one’s ideological preferences, it may involve a bigger or smaller role for the state in terms of public-private partnerships, public investment, and private investment incentives. But virtually all of its proponents agree that it requires sweeping regulatory reforms. As Klein recently wrote (citing an interview with an environmental scholar): “it [regulatory policy] penalizes and regulates technology, infrastructure and growth—often quite explicitly.”

One of the key strengths of this line of thinking is that it stands in contrast to the zero-sum politics that have marked the post-financial crisis era. It is inherently positive-sum, futuristic, and pro-progress. Thompson calls it “unabashedly utopian”, Smith has described it as the “product of hope”, and Klein has positioned it as a means to a “radically better” future. It’s a powerful idea that has only taken on greater salience in light of current supply bottlenecks. 

Notwithstanding its growing prominence in U.S. intellectual and political circles, there hasn’t quite yet been a similar pro-Building More Stuff movement in Canada. There are exceptions of course—Hub contributors Chris Spoke and Matt Spoke are examples and a recent Ontario Housing Affordability Task Force has a pro-building bias—but it’s fair to say that Poilievre has something of a first-mover advantage on a message of abundance and progress. 

The good news for him is that there’s certainly a lot of evidence for a new supply-side agenda to draw on. Take the federal Department of Health’s drug approval process. Last month the National Post reported that the global pharmaceutical company Merck has thousands of doses of its COVID-19 therapeutic drug in storage while it awaits federal approval. 

Never mind the drug has been approved by regulators in peer jurisdictions such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Or that the World Health Organization has recommended its use for high-risk patients. Or that the federal Industry Minister, François-Philippe Champagne, previously lauded Merck’s partnership with a Whitby-based company to manufacture the drug here in Canada. 

Notwithstanding these key considerations, the federal government has still carried out its regulatory review at what’s been described as a “snail-like speed.” The costs of these drug approval delays, unlike in the case of housing, won’t be mainly measured in higher prices but rather in higher rates of hospitalization and even deaths from COVID-19. 

In this particular case, the answer probably ought to have come in some form of regulatory harmonization with the United States such as a system of mutual recognition, joint review panels, or what is sometimes known as a “convergence test.” At this point, though, it’s critical that the Department of Health just approve the drug so that it can be administered in Canada as soon as possible. 

More generally, Canadian policymakers should be replacing these slow and duplicative regulatory processes—particularly in the face of a life-threatening endemic—with a model that preferences progress over a lot of bureaucratic busywork. Think of it as a pro-abundance response to the problem of government-induced scarcity. 

There are countless other examples across the Canadian economy that similarly represent an impediment to growth and progress. Poilievre is right therefore to focus on the gatekeepers. They stand in the way of abundance. It’s time to open the gates. 

Opinion: Marie Henein shares thoughts on the role of defence lawyers and Tamara Lich’s bail hearing at Runnymede conference


In 2016, Joanna Baron co-authored an op-edHonickman, Soupcoff & Baron: Safeguarding the rule of law. warning against growing disregard for precedent and textual authority at the Supreme Court of Canada. The op-ed observed that if “the Constitution is treated as a ‘living tree,’ such that judges are permitted to change its meaning to comply with their own subjective preferences, then no one’s rights and freedoms are secure. Today, the court has read in a right to strike; tomorrow it could read down freedom of expression or the right to equality under the law. The future is anyone’s guess.”

The piece diagnosed the root of rampant judicial policymaking as residing in received wisdom concerning constitutional meaning and interpretation, and in particular the notion that the Constitution’s meaning evolves with changes in society, independent of the written text. In response, the Runnymede Society was founded in 2016 by a group of lawyers and scholars (including Joanna) who wished to foster a culture of open exchange in Canadian law schools in which this wisdom could be thoughtfully interrogated.

At a time when cancel culture was beginning to emerge as a widespread phenomenon on campuses across the country, Runnymede’s success was highly uncertain. Six years later (two of which took place during a pandemic) it appears there was indeed a market for this thriving intellectual community, which now has chapters at almost every Canadian law school and a growing number of lawyer chapters in Canadian cities.

Runnymede aims to foster an ecumenical spirit within the Canadian legal profession, inviting members and non-members to consider diverse perspectives on some of the most pressing legal issues facing Canada. To this end, Runnymede’s annual Law & Freedom conference (held last weekend at the University of Toronto’s Hart House) welcomes leading jurists from across the legal spectrum to come together to discuss and debate these subjects.

Although Runnymede’s members share certain commitments – namely, to constitutionalism, freedom, and the rule of law – they are also united in their support for viewpoint diversity and encouraging rigorous, scholarly interrogation of the assumptions that shape how we think about the law. Runnymede conferences and events are, as a rule, not echo chambers.

Law & Freedom 2022Law and Freedom conference website. opened on Friday evening with a fireside chat between Joanna, Runnymede’s first national director, and Marie Henein, Canada’s most famous criminal defence lawyer. Henein shared reflections on issues ranging from the seeming elation within the defence bar when Freedom Convoy organizer Tamara Lich was denied bail (“In Russia, people are also celebrating protestors being arrested, let’s remember”) to the role of defence lawyers as the sole hindrance between an individual and the heavy machinery of the state.

The following day’s program featured an extraordinary panel that was the culmination of Runnymede’s founding vision. If one of the chief concerns that led to Runnymede’s founding was the need for intellectual diversity in Canadian law schools, a panel on “Emerging Alternatives in Legal Interpretation” was a vindication. It featured presentations from a textualist, a feminist originalist, and two “common good” constitutionalists, each presenting distinct views on how to approach constitutional interpretation.

For Professor Kerri Froc, a self-described feminist originalist from the University of New Brunswick, the Charter’s guarantee in section 28 of gender equality must be treated as having real teeth, such that protection of women must be implied in every law in Canada; for Kerry Sun and Xavier Foccroulle-Ménard—former Runnymede chapter leaders and practicing lawyers—law must be seen as having a role in the “body politic” of the community at large. Whatever one thinks of these viewpoints, having distinct analytical approaches surely improves the quality of legal thinking.

The conference concluded with a keynote lecture on the role of legal reasoning in constitutional interpretation by Justice Suzanne Côté of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Côté is known for the frequency of her dissents and her commitment to constrained legal reasoning. She charted a jurisprudential history from the Privy Council’s 1929 Edwards v CanadaEdwards v. Law Society of Upper Canada. decision up to the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling in Toronto v OntarioToronto (City) v. Ontario (Attorney General). Throughout her address, she presented a vision of constitutionalism that constrains the powers of legislative and judicial actors alike.

Justice Côté’s vision is not adhered to by all members of the Supreme Court. Yet in presenting her judicial philosophy so transparently, Justice Côté invited attendees to consider how their assumptions about unwritten constitutional principles, statutory text, and the role of courts shape our approach to constitutional interpretation.

This type of transparency invites principled disagreement and debate. It’s precisely this sort of openness that Runnymede continues to ensure in Canada’s law schools and legal profession. In a time when algorithms and ideologues push us further into our echo chambers, lawyers and law students, who ascribe to a notion of truth through the adversarial process, must above all embody a devotion to viewpoint diversity.