Climate, Justice and a New Canadian Project
GB sits down with the chief adviser to three new-century Canadian prime ministers to discuss the country’s major domestic pressures, the national toolkit and the expansion of public ambition
GB: As we approach the next federal election, how would you characterize the state of Canadian politics?
AH: I have been far more focussed on public policy than on retail politics. One thing that we can say with confidence, however, is that increasing numbers of Canadians seem turned off by party politics. The choices on offer have seemed quite narrow.
It is interesting, for instance, to see what happened in Ontario and Alberta, where a significant minority of voters apparently voted for lower taxes, less government and a return to austerity when just a few years ago it seemed as if most were making the opposite choice. We seem to lurch back and forth between governments more focussed on partially undoing what the previous government did than on the big, often tough decisions about our future.
In a sense, the federal election too seems to be shaping up to be about taxes, but in this case carbon taxes. It certainly looks as if it is being framed as a choice between the environment and the economy, with the carbon tax as a proxy for that choice. But is the carbon tax – which, as designed, will be neither the economic destroyer that its critics claim nor, however valuable, the environmental panacea that its defenders claim – really a good stand-in for the big-ticket questions, or the very big choices that Canadians really need to confront? What a waste it would be if the entire election came down to carbon tax when the issues are so much larger.
We in Canada, like elsewhere, face the related challenges of climate change, nature loss and extreme inequality. Those issues are, in my view, inseparable. Environmental justice and social justice will have to move hand in hand. It would be nice if that were what our elections were about.
GB: Why is Canadian politics today so focussed on the micro?
AH: The political choice seems to be between those who think that things are fairly good as they are – even if those things need some tinkering – versus those who think that we ought actually to dismantle government or at least reduce its footprint, ‘drain the swamp’ or ‘end the gravy train,’ or whatever language they use. The battle seems to be between complacency and tinkering, on the one hand, and resentment and dismantling on the other.
Canadians of my generation – in particular – have had it pretty good. We grew up in a time of more active government, and our work lives were shaped by a period of remarkable growth and opportunity. Many of us are in good shape today to manage change and help our own children. I can only imagine how irritating it must be to the many young people who face a far more precarious world, featuring governments more interested in cutting than improving services, when many in my own generation keep insisting that things are just fine the way they are, or that just a little tinkering is all that is required – or, worse still, when they are promised big change that never comes.
The flip side of this complacency is the growing distrust of government, and the large numbers of people at the bottom of the income scale who believe that the game is rigged, and that there is not much that anyone can do about it. It was not so long ago that John Meisel described Canada as a public enterprise society, that political scientists thought that what distinguished Canada and Canadians was our belief in peace, order and good government. Comedians poked fun at our politeness and deference to authority. This is not so much the case today. Research from EKOS, the Edelman Trust Barometer and other sources has documented the decline in social and political trust here in Canada, as in many other advanced countries.
GB: What are the two biggest policy challenges for Canada for the next 10 to 20 years?
AH: We have seen the reports that give the world a very finite number of years – by some estimates, as few as a dozen or so years – turn things around on climate change if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences. We have also seen reports on the state of the planet – specifically in respect of the accelerating rate of species and nature loss. Given the extreme weather events, and given the already visible consequences of nature loss and climate change, these are not some abstractions of the future. This is with us now.
It is tempting for Canadians – or at least Canadian leaders – to argue that we are only a small part of the total global emissions problem. We are an oil-producing country with a northern climate, so let us go slow or otherwise be careful not to upset too many apple carts. But surely that is at the heart of the collective action dilemma – where each of us, in pursuing his or her self-interest, fails to address shared interests. So we continue to pursue short-term profits and seek to avoid short-term cost, even when we will all end up carrying a much heavier price.
To this, we must add the reality that we Canadians are, on a per-capita basis, heavy emitters, and that Canada is feeling the consequences of the warming of the planet more than many other countries. Of course, wealthy countries like Canada are in a much better position to withstand or adapt to these changes. Indeed, we can already see some people identifying how they can profit from this. No doubt, there will be ‘winners’ – but talking about winners is highly problematic when the likely human costs, especially on those least able to manage them, and to the world order more generally, will be so great. Let me add that we in Canada have the extraordinary advantage of playing host to a disproportionate share of the planet’s wilderness and fresh water. The country is surrounded by three oceans. With all of that, surely, comes particular responsibility.
At the same time, inequality is growing and extreme inequality, as the historian Tony Judt has said, is corrosive to democracy and to the political and social trust that is essential to collective action. In Canada, we often compare ourselves to the US, and therefore can lull ourselves into self-satisfaction about economic inequality. But in Canada, too, the gap between the very top and the rest has grown to an arguably unsustainable extent. This, of course, has to do with the costs to our humanity and our economy of poverty – one need only look at homelessness in Canada. But it is not just that. It is also about power and solidarity.
GB: Can you elaborate on the connection you suggest between the climate challenge and inequality in Canada?
AH: In every democracy, there is a tension in respect of who decides the future – that is, the many or a powerful few. It is no surprise that money talks, but with the growing concentration of wealth at the very top, money talks louder than ever. With extreme inequality, social solidarity is eroded. Sociologists have long understood that when the rungs of the ladder are too far apart, it becomes harder to find common purpose. And it evidently becomes harder to climb up the ladder.
The Swedish researcher Bo Rothstein has done pioneering, cross-cultural work on the relationship between inequality and social trust. Simply put, the greater the inequality, the less we trust one another and our governments. This, in turn, means lower participation in politics, less willingness to invest in the future, as well as a range of social pathologies that Rothstein documents. It is hard not to conclude that the rise of nativist and authoritarian parties and collective decisions like Brexit are not at least in part a consequence of this constellation of inequality and distrust. And as I have mentioned, Canada is not immune in this respect. We too have experienced a precipitous decline in trust.
Here, too, the middle has been squeezed. Median incomes have been relatively stagnant, while top incomes – not to mention the costs of housing and tuition – have grown exponentially. Household debt keeps breaking records. Indeed, many Canadian households could not survive more than a week or two if they were to lose their income. Consider also the many young Canadians who graduate with record levels of debt, only to enter a labour market of precarious work with few benefits or prospects. Some have suggested ‘the precariat’ as the name of a new class.
While Canada has made important progress on poverty – and especially recently on child poverty – the country continues to lag behind other rich countries in Europe. We need only look at the number of indigenous communities that do not have safe drinking water, or the continuing fight for equal treatment of indigenous children, or the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in our jails and prisons. That Aboriginal people are the fastest growing population in the country ought to lend some overdue urgency to the cause of turning this around.
Government and business elites in fora like Davos seem increasingly to be worrying out loud that capitalism is coming under threat due to growing inequality and persistent poverty. They acknowledge that something needs to be done, but their so-called solutions come with the presumption that addressing this inequality must not in any way jeopardize their privilege and power. Their answer, more often than not, is more philanthropy. But a focus on charitable giving does not constrain their power. Indeed, it amplifies it as it provides them with maximum flexibility in how much, where, and under what conditions to give or withdraw their money. As the young Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, put it at the last Davos conference, what we need is not more philanthropy, but indeed more taxes. Of course, charitable giving is to be commended. But whatever its considerable merits, more philanthropy is not the solution to our systemic challenges. What is needed – including in Canada – is a tax system that can serve as the foundation for an economy that benefits the many.
Climate change and inequality are – to be sure – inseparable issues. For one thing, if one looks at emissions from a consumption perspective, the highest proportion of emissions is unsurprisingly produced by the very rich. However, the consequences fall most heavily on the poorest.
If you look at the gilets jaunes movement in France, that dispute is in part about who pays for the transition to a greener, low-carbon economy. Inequality has made central the question of who pays for this.
Now, if you look at the gilets jaunes movement in France, that dispute is in part about who pays for the transition to a greener, low-carbon economy. Inequality has made central the question of who pays for this. Of course, asking those people who have benefitted least and been served least well in recent decades to sacrifice the most is not typically going to go over very well in most societies. So how does one ensure that the necessary investments are made, and that the pricing of carbon and how a society pays for the massive investments needed are progressive and seen to be fair in the face of growing inequality?
Lastly, climate change and inequality are related because one could argue that, while the need to address climate change and nature loss constitutes an unprecedented and truly global challenge, the collective toolkit has been weakened. We see this internationally in the weakness of our multilateral institutions. We see this domestically as well. For Canada and many other rich countries, the general willingness to pay taxes is very low, as are social and political trust. And yet those are evidently the things that must be in place if we are going to make big change.
I find it very exciting that there are people in Canada, the US, the UK and Europe thinking about things like a ‘Green New Deal’ for a more sustainable and just future. Of course, there is more than one possible green new deal – that is, more than one version. Each country must develop its own approach. Debates about just what are the right targets or target dates continue. And many of the programmatic ideas are just that – ideas rather than designed policies or fully costed programmes. Much work remains to be done, and is in fact being done. But what is key about these new approaches is that they begin with a much-needed sense of urgency. They understand the stakes, scale and scope of this global challenge, and that the time to act is short. That means that the starting point must be what the science tells us is necessary, rather than what the politics tells us is possible.
The various versions of a new deal all recognize that no country can successfully address climate change if it does not simultaneously address economic inequality and insecurity. On this logic, essential to any green new deal will be modern and effective labour market policies and support for collective bargaining to rebalance power in the workplace and reflect how work is changing, expanded universal services – including national childcare and a right to housing – and strengthened mechanisms of redistribution.
A green new deal also understands that people who work in high-emitting industries are not the problem. Their concerns are legitimate and entirely understandable. And they must, in the end, be part of the solution.
A green new deal also understands that people who work in high-emitting industries are not the problem. Their concerns are legitimate and entirely understandable. And they must, in the end, be part of the solution. A just transition, partnerships with unions, and engagement of those most directly affected are therefore crucial.
The bottom line is that the ambition of these new approaches is at long last commensurate with the challenges at hand. The ambition of the proposed investments is crucial if we are to reconcile environmental, economic and social objectives and create the jobs of the future. This kind of mission-driven public investment is exactly what the Italian-American economist Mariana Mazzucato has been arguing for as essential to innovation and economic performance. And the ‘green new deal’ kind of thinking sees opportunity – not just cost.
What is also interesting is how many commentators criticize such major proposals for not having all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed. However, if one looks back on the language of FDR’s New Deal in America, or the Beveridge Report in the UK, or Canada’s own Marsh Papers, all were presented as general blueprints – that is, great national experiments to mobilize collective energy and resources. The leaders understood that they did not have all of the answers. They knew what they wanted to achieve. They knew why it was important. They knew some of the central elements. That was true when the Americans took on the space race, and that was true when we in Canada took on the national challenge of balancing the books in the 1990s. How is it that we could find the will to do difficult things in the name of so-called fiscal health but cannot find the political will to do what is needed for human health and the health of the planet? These leaders took on these big challenges but did not have all the answers. What they did have was a sense of urgency and a willingness to learn. As such, what is really important now is to change the conversation, clarify the objectives, and take some bold actions that launch us on the transformation needed.
GB: What are these end objectives of this transformation?
AH: The end objectives are decarbonization – that is, deeply reducing greenhouse gas emissions – reversing the decline in nature, and building a more sustainable, just society. The science is clear, as is the urgency.
Rather than asking what is good for the economy, we should be asking what would make an economy good for people and the planet. That is a key change in logic and the basis of a new common sense.
What we need is a public policy agenda that tells a different story – putting people and the planet first. Of course, when I say putting people and the planet first, some of GB’s readers will roll their eyes and say that these are just words with no meaning – that is, just another political cliché. But this goes to the heart of the matter about how we have come to create a conception of the economy that is disembodied and disembedded from nature and society. We ask, over and over again, what is good for the economy – as if the economy is some kind of independent entity – instead of asking what kind of economy we need in order to ensure human well-being and the health of the planet. We will not – to be sure – find the answers in a single-minded focus on economic growth or in the politics of austerity. Rather than asking what is good for the economy, we should be asking what would make an economy good for people and the planet. That is a key change in logic and the basis of a new common sense.
GB: For climate change, then, is this a narrative objective, a lifestyle objective, or are you literally seeking to reverse climate change?
AH: It is the latter first – but it is all of the above, for all practical purposes. Clearly, reversing climate change implies lifestyle changes, and that will only begin with the change in narrative. If there is no change in how we think about what we mean by the good life, and about our relationships to one another, to the state and to nature, then we will not meet the climate change challenge. Yes, the goal is the eventual reversal of climate change, but to do that requires a policy agenda that tells a different story.
I mentioned lifestyle changes, but let me stress that it is a terrible mistake to think that the solutions to climate change rest primarily in individual lifestyle choices. How we consume matters, but even that is not just about individual choice. It is also very much about public policy. We cannot choose clean public transportation if it is not available and affordable. Most of us could not hope to retrofit our homes without some public help. And so on. The solutions are, first and foremost, collective.
We cannot continue to treat the environment as simply an ‘externality’ to be addressed after the fact – that is, in terms of privately-produced pollution and publicly-paid clean-up. The big question here is political will. Most people in Canada largely already agree that climate change is a major challenge. While some countries will be less affected and are better able to adapt than others, no country will be immune from the global consequences and dislocations – that is, it will have life and death consequences for some, and life-altering consequences for most of the world’s population. And yes, the solutions must be properly global, and it is great that Canada has sought to play a leadership role here, but our global leadership, or that of any rich country, will be seriously undermined to the extent that the domestic agenda does not match up.
Now, whenever someone proposes a bold set of options involving domestic policy change and global leadership – like eliminating fossil-fuel cars by a certain date, to which a number of countries, including Norway, France, the UK, India and China, are already committed; or eliminating carbon-based fuels by a certain date; or raising standards for industries; or imposing a heavy price on carbon; or making huge investments in alternative and clean energies; or banning fracking; or implementing alternative technologies in the transportation system; or retrofitting houses and businesses; not to mention policies to level the playing field on trade such that climate change leaders are not disadvantaged – the critics or skeptics immediately respond about the need to be pragmatic. But this emphasis on old-style pragmatism ignores the nature and size of the challenge, and indeed the opportunities in play.
No doubt, incrementalism is the present norm in governing. Bite off manageable chunks, as it were. Ask what is affordable and politically saleable. Politics, they say, is the art of the possible. And years of tax cuts and austerity in Canada – even if modest and in slow motion compared to what we have seen, say, in Greece – have stunted the national political imagination, narrowing our sense of what is in fact possible. Big change is hard. But given the scale, given the urgency, given the stakes, and given the opportunities, an exclusive focus on the low-cost or easy deliverables may actually be dangerous.
Indeed, there is some research that shows that when governments make a big deal of an issue, people come to believe that the issue matters. Surely, too, when governments take small steps and miss even modest targets, that undercuts any sense of urgency. A recent piece in Nature reported on research that suggests that doing the easy stuff may actually undermine public willingness to do what is necessary. Why make any sacrifice if we can solve the problems effectively without cost?
Important debates on where the money is going to come from are in full swing – for starters, deficit financing for the investments in infrastructure, alternative energy and clean technology, creating the jobs of the future, fundamental tax reform, and public equity in publicly driven innovation. Bref, when we start with a commitment to do what is necessary, the means will be found.
GB: What if humanity is unsuccessful on the climate reversal front? Is there an adaptation agenda that fits within your framework?
AH: Absolutely. Adaptation is key. When Canada hosted the Montreal climate change meetings some years ago, we proposed the development of centres of adaptation – that is, to become an expert in climate adaptation, especially given our national challenges in the North and in the Arctic. Having said this, climate change is here, and the need to adapt now is urgent. Consider the need to plan for, and respond to, extreme weather events. This will mean identifying those regions and ecosystems at serious risk, building our adaptation expertise, and building adaptation and resilience into our policies – including in, say, building codes – and into our infrastructure plans and investments. We will, of course, need to focus on the North, and on coastal communities and Aboriginal communities in particular. We will need strategies to help the agricultural sector adapt, to protect our freshwater and wetlands, and to restore our forests. We cannot afford to take for granted our natural bounty.
Conservation and adaptation and climate action, more generally, are profoundly related. Some important work is being done on adaptation in Canada – for example, at the University of Waterloo. And this work demonstrates clearly that leadership on adaptation will require a serious expansion of knowledge and increased investment, but will also yield significant business opportunities.
Still, we should not take our eyes off the need for mitigation and indeed transformation.
GB: Can you clarify the argument that climate change falls disproportionately on the disadvantaged or the poor?
AH: Globally, there is already evidence that climate change has eroded the development gains of the past few decades. McGill’s Jason Samson and his team recently mapped out which countries would be most affected by climate change, and found that poorer countries that contributed least to emissions would suffer the greatest consequences. These countries also evidently have the least adequate infrastructure, and so are least able to adapt.
Closer to home, if you look at the recent extreme weather events – floods and droughts, hurricanes and fires – they have invariably fallen on the poor because they are, among other things, the least insured and live in the most vulnerable housing. They do not get to choose, or have to choose within a narrow range of options, where they live. Reparative and restorative work is also less available to them.
Of course, it is our overall tax system that will create – or not create – the sense that we are paying for the future fairly or not. If one looks at Canada’s overall tax system today, it is not as progressive as it was in the past, nor are the revenues generated (as a percentage of the economy) comparable to the past or what will be needed for the future. Tax cuts have disproportionately favoured the rich, whereas the service cuts resulting from those tax cuts affect the poorest disproportionately. The question, then, of who is paying for a more sustainable and just future becomes front and centre. Recent polls confirm what most would have suspected – namely that there is, in Canada, an increasing sense that our tax system is unfair, and that it heavily favours the rich and powerful. If such perceptions are not addressed, the country cannot succeed in moving forward.
GB: How would your framework of Canadian action on climate change fit with Canada’s very serious pressures – including geopolitical pressures – in the Arctic over the coming decade?
AH: I am not going to be able to do justice to this major issue in this format. Previous governments have developed Arctic and Northern strategies that have done more to reveal the tensions and conflicting interests at play than to demonstrate real leadership. Climate change has clearly changed the Northern and Arctic equation, and we can see that clearly in the intensified interest of all the neighbouring states that, without exception, have substantially increased their investments in the region to manage the threats and, even more, to seize the opportunities. It is not clear that Canada has kept pace, with the possible exception of Arctic research.
Nowhere is the intersection of competing issues and interests more evident than in the Arctic and the North: climate and the environment, energy and the economy, social justice and Aboriginal rights and culture, and, of course, sovereignty and security.
Bref, nowhere is the intersection of competing issues and interests more evident than in the Arctic and the North: climate and the environment, energy and the economy, social justice and Aboriginal rights and culture, and, of course, sovereignty and security. Leadership on these issues is very much in Canada’s interest, but will have to be earned. Climate change is opening up and transforming a region that approaches the size of the entire EU, with all the risks and opportunities that this entails. Leadership will require a clear vision of how to integrate the competing interests and pressures, and how to seize new opportunities in a way that is both sustainable and broadly shared.
We have the opportunity here to take what we have learned about climate change and nature loss, and give concrete meaning to the overused phrase ‘sustainable development.’ That will require raising our game, building on our investments in science, setting ambitious conservation goals, and addressing the urgent infrastructure and social needs of the North. Crucial to success will be the incorporation of indigenous-led initiatives and indigenous knowledge. Apart from everything else, a good deal of evidence shows quite clearly that such an approach actually works.
It is quite evident that Arctic and Northern melting will not be reversed, and that this has global climate implications. As such, adaptation measures must be front and centre in a comprehensive, long-term Arctic plan. Some money has been sprinkled here and there, but no such comprehensive Arctic plan has been developed or unveiled yet. And again, this activity should not be at the expense of mitigation efforts. Indeed, the chances for successful adaptation will be greatly enhanced to the extent that we limit, over time, the magnitude of the change to which the North and Arctic must adapt.
GB: What are the top three tax reforms that you would make in the service of greater justice and sustainability?
AH: Two things are key by way of background. First, I would certainly invest more in collecting what the country is owed. Canada must close the growing number of tax benefits or loopholes that, without serving any discernible public purpose, benefit those who need help least. Canada has to plug the leaks – in particular to tax havens. I am talking about many billions of dollars here – and about the perceived legitimacy of our tax system.
Second, I would stop making things worse through unaffordable tax cuts. Moody’s recently downgraded Ontario’s credit rating largely because of the province’s unaffordable tax cuts. How could citizens think that tax cuts are free? They are never free. We Canadians have to stop viewing taxes as a burden and a punishment. We have to reconnect taxes to the common good.
More specifically, one of my top taxation priorities would be to close the gap in how Canada treats money earned from investments versus money earned through hard work. This means reducing the capital gains exclusion. The old Carter Commission (Royal Commission on Taxation) report made the case that a buck is a buck, and that all bucks should be treated more or less equally. At the very least, then, Canada ought to close the gap.
In addition, Canada must go after wealth in a much more effective way. I would really look seriously at inheritance taxation. Yes, we need to do this in a way that insulates and protects the rights of families to take care of their children, but given how much wealth is concentrated at the top, surely there should be limits. A national commitment to equality of opportunity requires no less. This must be done carefully and respectfully – but it must be done. Finally, I would make our overall tax system more progressive.
GB: What about the GST cuts of the last decade and a half?
AH: I would never have implemented them in the first place. Those cuts cost over $14 billion annually – a cost that grows year over year. That is what a two percent cut in the GST/HST costs. How could we have ever thought that taking out such an amount with no replacement at all would not have had serious consequences? Even before the 2008 meltdown, Canada was moving to a structural deficit after a decade of surpluses. The austerity that followed was largely self-imposed.
Still, I would not necessarily start fixing the tax system by replacing those two percentage points. Ultimately, we are going to need an increase in broad-based taxes. Still, a carbon tax and/or a financial transaction tax might well be a better way of filling the holes.
Having said all this, in some ways, I wish I had not answered your question about specific priorities in tax reform, because what I think is needed is a more holistic and fundamental rethink of how and whom we tax – especially given how the world has changed since the Carter Commission gave our tax system such a comprehensive review.
GB: What state of play would you like to see in Canadian relations with the country’s indigenous peoples 20 years from now?
AH: It is hard for me not to go back to the ill-fated Kelowna Accord. Back in 2006, all of the premiers, the Prime Minister and the leaders of the five national Aboriginal groups signed on to the agenda. That agenda included a set of objectives to transform Canada’s relationship to First Nations and other Aboriginal people. It focussed on tough, bread-and-butter issues: water on reserves, health care, economic development, justice and, of course, education. In its very process, Kelowna respected Aboriginal rights, because the agenda was to be developed and implemented in full partnership.
At the time, the Aboriginal leadership made commitments to the effect that they would implement an Aboriginal-based audit process and an ombudsman process particularly to protect the rights of women. Much like the green new deal, many details still had to be worked out. But if Canada is truly going to do this in partnership, then not all of the specifics can have been worked out from the very start. And yet the goals were clear, the requirements to measure and monitor progress were manifest, the commitment to partnership was plain, and Ottawa was ready to put significant money behind all of this.
Canada has learned a great deal since Kelowna. We have learned about the need to repair the huge damage caused over the course of the residential school period, about suicides on Aboriginal reserves, about the urgency to close the unforgivable gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous child welfare and education, and about the tragic and shameful neglect of the murder and abuse of Aboriginal women.
Canada has learned a great deal since Kelowna. We have learned about the need to repair the huge damage caused over the course of the residential school period, about suicides on Aboriginal reserves, about the urgency to close the unforgivable gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous child welfare and education, and about the tragic and shameful neglect of the murder and abuse of Aboriginal women. The insights of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are an invaluable resource for governments working toward reconciliation – a resource that we did not have in 2006. I also know that important work is currently underway on the meaning of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, on Aboriginal languages, and on what reconciliation looks like in practice. And yet the country could also learn a great deal from how close we came to a new consensus not so long ago in Kelowna.
GB: What should the relationship with indigenous peoples look like? What quality of life should Canada’s indigenous peoples enjoy 20 years from now?
AH: We will have to close the gap in living standards and life chances, and Aboriginal communities will need to have choices that they currently do not have in order to shape their own future. The gap in health outcomes, in child welfare, and in education will have to be closed. And when we take on poverty more generally in Canada, as we must, we will have to give the highest priority to indigenous peoples. Of course, prerequisite to all this is an end to paternalism – at long last. This means that governments must do as a matter of policy what Aboriginal people have had to go to the courts to gain. This is about reconciliation, and that inevitably means that it is also about rights. And now we have the sweeping and powerful report on murdered and missing aboriginal women that calls for a national reckoning and remedies from all governments and segments of Canadian society.
GB: Can Canada coherently ‘think for itself’ today, in narrative and policy terms? Does the country have the necessary cultural and intellectual space to do so? Does Canada have enough platforms for thinking?
AH: That is a good question. Canada does not exist in isolation. We are a mid-sized country and cannot afford to ignore global realities. We have to identify – honestly – our degrees of freedom. But our problem is not excessive ambition. Quite the contrary, as we seem to have a collective aspirations deficit. Decades of austerity have left their mark. The combination of tax cuts, deregulation, squeezed services and privatization have led many Canadians to be skeptical of what we collectively could ever hope to accomplish, and skeptical about what government is and for whom it exists. On climate specifically, decades of half-measures and missed targets have not only undermined any sense of urgency, but have also raised doubts about what is ultimately possible. One challenge of political leadership, then, is to expand Canadians’ sense of what is possible together.
In the past, when Canada’s economy was less than half of its present size, we as a country decided to implement medicare, from coast to coast to coast. That was evidently not true in the US. We did that. There is no question that, at the time, there was a raucous, massive reaction to that transformation in Canada – a huge, powerful backlash. Big change is hard. But Canada did it, and that transformation became a significant comparative advantage for the country.
It will take similar leadership to bring pharmacare and dental care into our medicare system, knowing there will be very strong opposition to these moves. It will again be raucous and messy. Avoiding friction cannot be the goal. In that sense, I take objection to the idea among some pundits that the fact that the previous federal government did not have terrible federal-provincial tensions should be seen as a standard in best practices. Of course, minimizing friction to the extent possible is always a good idea. But if friction avoidance is the overriding goal in Canada, then we are going to be in really big trouble.
GB: How do you assess Western alienation in Canada today in terms of the health of the country and federation? How would you deal with it?
AH: It is difficult to attribute the recent Alberta election outcome solely to Western alienation, as the result was not that dissimilar to the result in Ontario, or indeed from the long history of a particular Alberta brand of conservatism. That result is also not that dissimilar to what has been suggested by some of the federal polling over in recent months.
As such, I do not have a nice, neat answer for you. There really is a challenge in trying to make a true climate transformation nationally and globally, as parts of this very big country will have very, very different perspectives. Low-carbon energy provinces will be very different from high-carbon energy provinces. That is not a moral judgement. That is just where they are. We ought to judge less, and try to understand more. There will, in the end, be a need for a national transformation that is regionally sensitive and has regionally specific energy plans that respect the fact that every province starts in a different place, has different challenges, and enjoys different opportunities.
Those who work in the oil sands evidently have children and families. Whatever one’s perspective on the climate issue, we have to start recognizing that the livelihood of these people and their children matters, and that a future transition must be just and sensitive, must partner with the unions that represent them, and must engage those most directly affected. But this will also mean – to be sure – some straight talk.
If you go back to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the promise to bring back the coal industry was, in my view, particularly disrespectful to those who work in the coal industry. First and foremost, this industrial revival of coal simply will not happen. The market is already dictating that it will not happen. So being dishonest and not helping those workers to plan for an alternative future is patently irresponsible. Being respectful of those working in carbon-intensive industries requires not caricaturing or prejudging. It requires recognition of the fact that they have real, immediate concerns about their families and communities that cannot be ignored. Do not lie to them, and do not pretend that the market is somehow going to solve everything, or that their future does not demand some transformation in which all citizens, collectively, will have to participate.
GB: What is your advice, for the next 10 to 20 years, for the present and future policy leaders of Canada?
AH: It is pretentious of me to offer such advice, but here I go anyway. Just about every day, there is a new book about the decline or demise of democracy. Underneath all of what we have been discussing here is the imperative of democratic renewal. Over a third of eligible voters in Canada do not vote federally. Turnout is generally even worse at the municipal and provincial levels. Distrust in government has grown for four decades in Canada. Commitment to democracy is in decline. We know from everyday life that breaking trust is far easier than restoring it. Democratic renewal is therefore both essential and massively difficult. In part, democratic renewal means institutional reform – particularly electoral reform. I have commented elsewhere about the benefits of a more proportional system for public policy and democratic engagement.
At the core of rebuilding trust is an agenda that directly and boldly addresses economic insecurity and inequality, and unequivocally rejects the rising faux populism of nativism, xenophobia and authoritarianism. That means a commitment not only to political democracy, but also to economic democracy. Recent evidence makes clear that it is also time to confront racism and religious bigotry head on. Canada will need to fight hard for the inclusive community in which it takes such pride.
Let me also say something about the almost daily articles decrying the rise of populism around the world. I too am very worried about the apparent ascendance of nativist and authoritarian politics. However, if by populism we mean ‘of and for the people,’ then we are using the wrong language. These parties play on popular resentment and fear in order to divide and distract – so, yes, they offer a kind of faux populism. Having said this, to the extent that democracy means that the many, rather than the powerful few, set the collective direction, then we could do with more real ‘populism.’ Renewing democracy – in the workplace and in our politics – seems to me to be at the heart of the matter.
Our leaders have to be deeply committed to an engaged democracy. We have to rebuild trust – trust in one another, trust in the democratic process, and trust in the future. As I noted, I am a great fan of the post-WW2 Marsh and Beveridge Reports, which laid the foundation for welfare states in Canada and the UK. We need that same kind of vision today – perhaps a green new deal or something analogous. But we need to do this differently, democratically – to truly engage people, crossing sectors, so that labour, environmentalists, poverty groups, indigenous communities and all those most directly affected are all in the room, with a voice. We cannot pretend anymore that there are some big-brained people sitting in Ottawa who are going to come up with all of the answers. The process evidently matters, and this must be a deeply engaged process.
Lastly, let me argue that the leaders of today and tomorrow will never be quite up to the challenge at hand. Leadership is never really a one-person show. That is more profoundly the case today, given the complexity of our current challenges, the diverse domains of knowledge and expertise needed, and the multiple poles of conflict that have to be reconciled. The particular skills or types of competence that a leader needs will vary according to the challenges of her organization. Bref, in this time of complexity and given the challenges, public leadership is bigger than any person. The cult of leadership in our political culture is dangerous.
I have said in the past that, for public leaders, whatever other skills and talents they may require, a few characteristics are fundamental. Today, more than ever, they will have to demonstrate humanity – to close the gap between the state and those it serves, and to link private troubles to public issues. They will need humility, recognizing the need for engagement of the best specialists and the diverse communities served and affected. And finally, they will need humour. For how else will they ever get through?
Alex Himelfarb was Clerk of the Privy Council Office and Cabinet Secretary to three Canadian Prime Ministers between 2002 and 2006.