Good ideas and familiar faces

A few ideas the Conservatives might wish to pluck from their opponents’ now-shuttered platforms

Good ideas and familiar faces

Mark Blinch/Reuters

After handily winning the federal election earlier this month, Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have little trouble implementing his not-so-hidden agenda. Between now and 2015 we can thus expect that the deficit will be whittled away, per-vote subsidies for political parties phased out, the long-gun registry eliminated, crime fought and taxes kept low.

But having a winning platform is not the same thing as having a monopoly on good ideas. Four years without an election offers this government the luxury of considering new policies on their own merits. And with this sort of freedom in mind, here are a few ideas the Conservatives might wish to pluck from their opponents’ now-shuttered platforms.

A more effective and civil House of Commons, as promoted by both opposition parties, is clearly a pressing need. The hyper-partisanship of the recent minority governments has pushed Parliament into general disrepute, robbed Canadians of timely and unbiased information on many important subjects and led to the abuse of various parliamentary procedures, including prorogation. “Canadians,” the Liberal platform stated, “want to be proud of our democratic institutions.” The NDP platform promised to set a “new tone in Parliament.” It will be up to all three parties to make this happen, but the government should demonstrate leadership.

A Liberal proposal for a voluntary add-on to the Canada Pension Plan is also worth a second look. Evidence that a sizable minority of Canadians are not saving sufficiently for their retirement poses a looming dilemma for federal and provincial governments. While a massive increase in CPP premiums, as advocated by the NDP, is certainly inappropriate, an optional top-up program could fit the bill with no cost to government or business.

The most promising suggestion from the 2011 election, however, looks to be Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s under-reported proposal for a Canadian Learning Passport. This was to take the form of a $1,000 per year grant made directly to post-secondary students and their families for four years. Low-income students would qualify for an additional $500 per year.

Such a plan—let’s properly call it a voucher system for higher education—holds the promise of some important benefits to the post-secondary industry in Canada.

In recent years, provincial government funding constraints have caused considerable hardships for Canada’s post-secondary institutions. And federal assistance for students has made increased use of tax credits over loans and grants, which reduces their upfront ability to pay for education. Central control of the funding levers has created a largely static education system that discourages innovation.

It makes sense, therefore, to consider giving students greater control over post-secondary funding by putting more of the public money directly into their hands, which is the intent of the Liberal idea. Faced with a real market for education services, schools would be encouraged to engage in more spirited competition, leading to greater differentiation and specialization of programs. This was the aim behind recent reforms to the British university system, in which tuition fees were largely deregulated and student aid vastly improved. A similar recommendation was made for Nova Scotia’s post-secondary system last year by economist Tim O’Neill.

A Canadian Learning Passport is an example of innovative thinking with regards to Canada’s college and university system and deserves much greater scrutiny, regardless of who thought of it first.

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