A New Canadian Public Philosophy for the 21st Century

By Campbell, Robert | Journal of Canadian Studies, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

A New Canadian Public Philosophy for the 21st Century


Campbell, Robert, Journal of Canadian Studies


For all intents and purposes, the neoconservative era in Canada has concluded. When Finance Minister Paul Martin stands up on budget night in the House of Commons in February 2000, the first budget of the new millennium may give Canadians some insight into where Canada is heading in the 21st century. Then again, if recent budgets are indicators, it will likely not. The budget - the key government statement of policy intent - will likely reflect Canadians' ambivalence about what policy approach will succeed neoconservatism. The Liberal government lacks vision and seems incapable of, or disinterested in, leading a real public debate about Canada's future direction.

Public policy in Canada over the last 50 years has been framed by a series of three policy strategies. Each had a raison d&re, tactics and a flaw that led to its replacement by a new strategy - to address this flaw. The experiences of the Depression and the Second World War framed the Keynesian era (1945-1975), which focussed on maintaining employment and economic and social security via countercyclical budgeting and the construction of the welfare state. This framework was undermined by international economic developments and Keynesianism's asymmetrical character in dealing less successfully with inflation than with unemployment. The post-Keynesian era (1975-1984) focussed on containing inflation and on increasing capacity to deal with the international economy. It flirted with planning, and introduced interventionist programmes and institutions. This era exposed Canadians' ambivalence about the roles of the state and the market. Half-hearted planning respected the authority of the market, resulting in weak economic growth, low productivity gains, increased public expenditures and decreased revenues, and the era's Achilles heel - ballooning deficits. The "neoconservative" era (1985-1998) focussed on the deficit, which was seen to reflect the failures of the previous eras. The market's authority was elevated and the state's economic responsibilities were diminished. The deficit was eliminated, by dismantling programs, regulations and institutions.

Neoconservatism has had some success within its framework, including four consecutive balanced budgets, reasonable growth, failing unemployment, and the reincarnation of a discourse of balanced budgets, sound finance and a limited government. But this discourse has been weakening. First, there has been concern that the costs of neoconservatism have been too high, particularly in areas like health care and education. Second, the economy has suffered in some dimensions: a record low dollar, poor productivity performance and a declining standard of living for many. The Achilles heel of the neoconservative era has been the creation of an existential policy vacuum - a sense of aimlessness and lack of policy purpose in the globalised market environment. The deficit has been eliminated as a policy focus, but no replacement like unemployment or inflation has emerged around which to focus policy attention in the new policy era.

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