As published in the Toronto Star
It’s been a summer of losing some Canadian political icons — the greats of history who have left behind legacies that define our nation and will continue to do so long after their passing.
Hugh Segal, Monique Begin, Pat Carney, Keith Spicer — to a person, they engaged in tough, elbows-up politics. To a person, their legacies will stay in our lives because they fought for ambitious ideas, crafted pragmatic solutions and sought common ground.
Segal demanded a respect for institutions and a generous conservatism. Begin created the child tax credit, championed benefits for seniors and was behind the unanimous adoption of the Canada Health Act. Carney vigorously promoted free trade and was a female first in many areas of economic policy. Spicer’s dedication to national unity was colourful and provocative.
They came from disparate parts of Canadian politics, but they were driven by powerful yet moderate ideals with an eye to benefiting the country as a whole. They stuck to their convictions despite occasional setbacks.
As Parliament returns this week, business leaders are hoping for a heavy dose of that approach — a concerted push toward a Big Idea that has enough broad appeal to inspire concrete solutions.
It’s not a return to business as usual
Polarizing issues and gamesmanship aside, they, like most Canadians, have a shared understanding that the post-pandemic economic recovery is not a return to business as usual. We all feel the pinch of persistent inflation, the heat of the forest fires, the malaise that stems from global superpowers jockeying for supremacy.
And now, we feel the economy slowing down. It actually didn’t grow at all in the spring. The stall is tugging at the fortunes of every region of the country, and consumers are treading water.
This may or may not be the proverbial “soft landing” — an economy that is weak enough to bring inflation to heel, but not so weak that people lose their jobs in droves.
Regardless, one thing business leaders and economists are united on is that low growth in Canada is now endemic, and that’s where the chronic, seemingly intractable, problem for the country lies. Per-capita GDP has declined for four straight quarters in a row, Royal Bank points out in its most recent economic outlook. That means our standard of living is eroding, and the prosperity that pays for our social programs is crumbling slowly.
How do we turn that around?
An elusive search for growth — and leadership
If there’s an upside to this conundrum, it’s that we have a political consensus that economic growth makes everything easier, and that it’s the lifeblood of prosperity and the social safety net that Canada is known for.
What we don’t have, however, is a consensus around where to find that elusive growth, nor do we have that iconic leader — a la Segal, Begin, Carney, Spicer — who will push and prod the body politic to chase it down.
For sure, we have glimpses of a growth strategy.
The energy transition is in our midst, and various government policies and private sector initiatives aim to leverage our know-how and capital, dramatically ramp up investment in order to cut emissions and embrace clean energy.
Immigration is propelling our population, and there are signs that the mix of newcomers will favour a larger proportion of economic immigrants, who come with needed skills and ambition.
Artificial intelligence, especially generative AI, holds out the promise for massive productivity gains — if we can figure out how to deploy it broadly with wisdom, efficiency and with an eye to boosting our competitiveness.
But our industrial strategy is not as coherent as it could be. And much of the political conversation around growth quickly degenerates into finger-pointing and blaming, or is thrown off track by the deafening culture wars.
Canadian legacies for getting things done
Segal died Aug. 9 at the age of 72. He is imprinted in our memories for his relentless and patient decades-long campaign to confront poverty in Canada. His concept of a guaranteed basic income is a bridge too far for some, but it has its supporters in every political party, and elements of his approach are embedded in our transfer programs and social security.
Begin died on Sept. 8 at the age of 87. She lives on through our child care benefits, which she spearheaded in 1978 after years of political activism to support women and their families. Those benefits were modified and enriched by the Conservatives and then the Liberals, and are considered an essential tool to encourage fuller participation of women in the labour force.
Carney died July 25 at the age of 88. Her legacy, of course, is the streak of free trade agreements that Canada has signed since she fronted talks with the United States leading to the Free Trade Agreement in 1987. So controversial at the time, the FTA expanded to become North American in scope, and is now the backbone of Canada’s industrial organization and much of the country’s competitive advantage.
Spicer died Aug. 24 at the age of 89. As the commissioner of official languages, a broadcast regulator, and a passionate speaker on what it means to be Canadian, his imprint on our cultural fabric is deep and lasting.
Collectively, they spent decades playing the long game, working with the public and shaping the future of Canada in lasting, practical ways. They drowned out petty rivalries and divisive, short-term political tactics with moderate but equally passionate solutions.
The low-growth conundrum that is eroding our prosperity in today’s age deserves the same treatment.
November 24, 2023
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