Renewing Federalism: Why Social Reform Is Necessary

Article excerpt

Last week in Montreal, I presented a number of proposals which might form the basis for a new, alternative national agenda. They include the following:

* First and foremost, a commitment by all Canadians to a strong social safety net--because, in my view, our social policies and programs are the touchtone of Canadian identity. I'll have more to say on social policy reform in a moment.

* Second, a truly co-operative debt management plan--one which allows governments to tackle the debt problem in a co-ordinated way, discourages harmful competition among jurisdictions, restores integrity to public finances, and thereby helps our nation better build for the future.

* Third, a national training and investment strategy to invest in the skills and human capital we need to compete in the global, technological economy of the 21st century.

* Fourth, a comprehensive taxation review to ensure that our national tax system is fair and effective, and that it reflects the current priorities of Canadians.

* Fifth, the improvement of working conditions, wages and benefits to reverse -- or at least to halt -- the current, disturbing "race to bottom." For example, Saskatchewan is the only jurisdiction in Canada to have legislated significant improvements for part-time workers, but exposing us to the attack that we are no longer economically competitive with other jurisdictions. Clearly, we should be "levelling up" working standards, rather than levelling them down.

* And sixth, changes to the Canadian federation which provide for modern, effective administrative arrangements among governments, and which recognize Quebec's unique mandate to preserve and promote its linguistic and cultural identity.

This proposed agenda, rather quickly summarized here, calls for a new era of public activism -- an activism not necessarily geared to the preservation of the status quo of current programs, but one which sees our community of Canada coming together to meet the challenges of globalism and the like, and to improve the quality of life for all.

A Critical time for Canada

As we know, this is a critical moment in Canadian history.

Beyond the Quebec situation, it is a time of unprecedented change -- technological, economic, political and social -- and of dislocation, uncertainty and anxiety which often accompany change.

Ironically, as we stand on the brink of a new millennium and attempt to deal with these many new challenges, we also find ourselves grappling with issues we once thought were resolved. Issues like designing and funding an effective, progressive social safety net; reforming relations among Canadian governments; and -- still -- the issue of Canadian unity.

This has made the task all the more daunting.

We find ourselves forced to re-think our social policies and institutions, and to do so without losing that which binds us together as Canadians -- our deepest core values of community, compassion, accommodation, tolerance and opportunity.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier once commented that the 20th century would belong to Canada. This has proven to be true in at least one sense: we have built one of the best countries in the world in which to live.

And much of our success is due to our adherence to these core values and their thoughtful, determined integration into our national policies and institutions and, thus, our culture. After all, they have allowed Canada to thrive economically, politically and socially.

So, let's recommit ourselves to these values as we pursue a new vision for our national community.

Social Policy and our Collective Future

Social policy is central to this journey. And I want to concentrate my remarks today on this aspect of the national agenda.

Tom Courchene has observed that, with the end of tariff protections and east-west transportation policy -- Sir John A. …