A Call To Reform

That’s the thing about thorns in your side — even after they’re gone, they still have a lingering pain.

Well noted thorn Kevin Page, once Parliamentary Budget Officer, is still causing some phantom pain for Ottawa.  He’s now an intellectual, lobbing his stones from down the road at the University of Ottawa.

But Page’s op-ed in the Toronto Star shows that the one-time king of the watchdogs doesn’t have the same sting that it used to.

When Page writes that the government’s sad state of affairs, and its penchant for myopic wandering through policy without much consideration for the relevant facts, it’s difficult to take him as anything short of an expert on the matter.  He was, after all, the man scrutinizing every penny removed from the public purse — in such a way that got the Prime Minister’s back up, furious over how well his own idea worked.

But whereas Page’s sharpest sword was the spreadsheet, he is now tasked with entering the political fray with rhetoric.  And it doesn’t work.  As such, he’s just another in a long line of would-be heroes that have left us just as astray as we’ve ever been.

After laying out all the issues that face us, Page gives us the hook.

“So how do we get out of this dangerous spiral?  One thing is clear: we cannot overcome the pressing economic challenges before us without the concerted effort of our government institutions,” he writes.  We’ve gotten the prognosis, so we read on for the prescription.

Open conversation.

Public debate.


He makes oblique reference to the assumed altruism of Michael Chong’s reform bill.



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And he pleads with Ottawa to launch a royal commission into how to fix things.

Alas, Page’s promise of solution rings hallow.

This country doesn’t need more conversation, or endless debate.  It doesn’t need transparency.  It doesn’t need a royal commission.  It doesn’t need reform.

At least, it doesn’t need any of those ideas in the abstract.

But that appears to be the only thing we’re capable of doing anymore.  We’ve gotten so professional at bemoaning the sins of the Harper Government, and the failures of our institution.  We’ve gotten skilled at chiding broken systems.  We brush aside any positive move forward by this government as piecemeal.

I’ll stop now and address the obvious irony of me cynically deriding cynical derision.

I’m going to suggest three real ideas, and encourage everyone else to do the same:

One: Open the door to electoral reform.  While this has been a long-considered idea by both the Liberals, and NDP, they’ve both divested of ever openly talking about it, lest anyone think them guilty of holding a policy.  The Greens, to their credit, are radically in favour of reforming the electoral system.  But party politics aside: this is an idea of critical importance and there remains little doubt in anyone’s mind that our system would benefit from some level of change to our first-past-the-post system of electing single-member constituencies.  A national consultation on the changes, followed by a referendum on the changes would promise a renewed interest in our system.  Don’t hold your breath for this one: according to an ATIP I sent last summer, the government has literally spent no time considering alternative electoral systems since 2006.

Two: Reform party financing.  While Jean Chretien should be commended for his move to get corporate and union money out of politics.  Harper, too, should get some credit for abolishing the per-vote subsidy — a wholly wasteful system that benefitted established parties and offered a double-reward for success.  Of course, Harper’s move was born out of cynicism and self-interest more so than altruism, so here’s a novel idea: replace the per-vote subsidy with a more egalitarian funding model.  The federal government could empower party voter-outreach campaigns by covering the cost of staff, or subsidizing transit for local candidates.  If the government needs to find the funding somewhere, they could start by axing the ludicrous donation tax rebate which can return as much as 75 per cent of the original donation through credits, benefiting the wealthy more than anyone else.

Three: Place ministers’ offices under the Access to Information regime.  If you want to talk transparency and accountability, target the guarded vaults that are hidden in each ministerial office.  While their departments are perforated institutions that are accountable to information requests from the public, the cabinet is shielded by our archaic ATIP regime (a system that still uses the word “microfilm”) and are often the repository for information that bureaucrats want to shield from prying eyes.

So there you have it: three ideas.

Don’t let the political class tell you reform is a zero sum game.

If we get bogged down in the constant partisan catfight of the Senate reference, or whether or not Chong’s bill will bring about the second coming of Jesus, we’ll blow right past the embarrassment of riches we have laying at our feet.

Pick your favourite reform.  Tweet it at @LooniePolitics.  Then don’t stop talking about it, until we do it.


Other columns by Justin Ling

Harper and the liberal journalists of Sparks Street

It’s time for the Toronto Star to get back to journalism

Green With Fundraising Envy

Follow Justin Ling on twitter: @Justin_Ling


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