Michael Ignatieff: what I would do if I were the Prime Minister

From Afghanistan to Quebec, education to the environment, Ignatieff lays out his bold, progressive vision for Canada. A Maclean’s exclusive.

In the last year, I have spent a lot of time listening to Canadians, at first on doorsteps in my riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore and then as a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal party. As I listened, I began to get a feel for the aspirations and dreams that any sound Liberal policy must serve. I’ve been a Liberal since I was 17 years old — I campaigned for Mike Pearson in 1965 and served as a national youth organizer for Pierre Trudeau in 1968 — and the ideals I have heard reaffirmed across the country have strengthened convictions I have held all my life.

In less than 140 years, Canada has transformed itself from a union of founding peoples — anglophone, francophone and Aboriginal — into a society that embraces the full diversity of our planet. Together, we have struggled to achieve equality of citizenship for all. We have maintained our independence beside the most powerful nation in the world and we have preserved our unity as a people.

Canada has demonstrated to the world that peoples of different languages, faiths and traditions can reconcile their differences and work together to strengthen the common framework of free government.

Canadians have created a distinctly progressive political culture in North America. We believe in universal rights of access to publicly funded health care; we believe in the protection of group rights to language; in group rights to self-determination for Aboriginal peoples; we believe in the equality rights of all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation, including rights to marriage. Strong majorities of Canadians believe that while abortion should be rare, it should be a protected right for all women. In addition, Canadians do not support capital punishment and we do not believe in a constitutionally protected right to bear arms. We also maintain that human freedom is best protected in a market economy where risk-taking is rewarded, taxes are kept competitive, workers’ rights are protected, and the public finances are managed prudently to avoid burdening future generations with debt. We believe, finally, that we are stewards of our land, air and water and have an obligation to hand these treasures on to the next generation redeemed and renewed.

I am in politics to defend and develop this progressive achievement.

As the Liberal party renews its sense of purpose over the coming months, it should be bold, unafraid to identify the problems we must tackle, and courageous in the solutions we propose.

To be bold, Liberals need to draw inspiration from our history. Our best Liberal leaders have not just been party leaders. They have been nation-builders. Wilfrid Laurier opened Canada to mass immigration, built the second national railway, created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta and began Canada’s emancipation from the British Empire and our emergence as a fully independent state.

It is time for Liberals to become nation-builders again. The country does not want to be administered. It wants to be led. It doesn’t want to be divided, it wants to be united. The country has not lost faith with its traditions of progressive government. It wants these traditions renewed for the 21st century. A nation-building agenda must unify us as a people and must have four basic priorities: strengthening a sustainable economy, strengthening the spine of our citizenship, strengthening our unity as a people, and strengthening our place in the world

We cannot reduce child poverty, gaps in Aboriginal health and education, clean up our lakes and rivers, generate jobs in Canada’s regions, unless we create more wealth by making our economy more competitive. Greater wealth alone, of course, will not solve our problems. However, without greater wealth, we have no chance of making ourselves a fairer and more decent society.

Right now, our prosperity conceals some worrying signs of weakness. The rising dollar has eroded our competitive advantage. We do not have enough global market share in key emerging economies like India and China. Canadian productivity lags behind our competitors.

Improving productivity is the business of business. But government, especially the federal government, has unrivalled instruments — fiscal and monetary policy, investment strategies, capacities of coordination and the ability to create national infrastructure — to help Canadians to make their economic performance world-class. We need a national prosperity strategy that addresses the long-term productivity challenge.

The first element of such a strategy is to strengthen Canada as a single economic market. At present, the national economy is fragmented, with substantial barriers to labour and capital mobility between provinces. Regulatory, tariff and infrastructure obstacles continue to divide Canadian regions.

These weaknesses in our national economy not only reduce our economic performance. They also aggravate political tensions between regions. The federal government should convene regular meetings of first ministers on the national economic union to reduce barriers to interprovincial labour and capital and to undertake the investments in infrastructure — like energy corridors between provinces and gateway development in our Atlantic and Pacific ports — to improve the efficiency of the national economy.

We also have an education deficit that needs to be addressed. A staggering nine million working-age people, or 42 per cent of Canadians, have literacy skills below the level considered necessary to function in society. The federal government should work with the provinces to eliminate all remaining barriers — of income and family circumstance — to post-secondary education, especially for Aboriginal Canadians, new immigrants, visible minorities and Canadians living outside large urban centres.

Improving opportunity for individuals is not enough. We also need to improve opportunity for Canada’s regions. Indeed, the rural-urban, metropolitan-regional divide in Canada is the undiscussed national unity challenge of our time. We need a concerted regional economic development strategy that leaves no Canadian region behind.

Improving educational opportunities in Canada’s regions is crucial if young professionals are to remain where they grew up and to create new opportunities for their children.

Our regions also need to develop new partnerships between the agriculture and natural resource sectors and local universities to create new products in the biofuel and biopharmaceutical areas. We also need to strengthen our supply management systems and our income security for the farming population, faced as it is with heavily subsidized production from our competitors.

The federal government needs a national food policy, to coordinate its own efforts for reviving Canada’s ocean regions and our agricultural sector and preserving Canada’s role as a world food leader. The federal government should also work in partnership with the provinces and rural communities in regionally crafted regional economic development policy.

A prosperity strategy must include a plan for environmental sustainability. In no area of government policy is tough leadership more necessary than in the environment. It is no longer enough to rely on voluntary initiatives and subsidies to drive reductions in harmful emissions. A free market dictates that emissions will continue to rise unless reducing emissions is reflected in the cost of doing business. We need to shift to policies that provide strong financial and regulatory constraints to prevent the free dumping of emissions into the atmosphere.

But these regulations need to be fair. It makes no sense to target the Alberta energy sector alone. A balanced set of regulations must apply to all regions and all emitters and polluters, on the principle of polluter pays.

Environmental and energy policy are always national unity issues in Canada, and regulations need to be framed so that they do not pit one region of the country against another.

Finally, good environmental policy needs to be implemented gradually in step with the normal rate of new investment. We need to show the world environmental leadership without jeopardizing our international competitiveness.

The federal government’s environmental plan must work with the provinces to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, take proactive steps to preserve and enhance the quality of our air and water, and create real incentives for good environmental behaviour and innovation. We need to get tough, before it is too late.

Canada is a civic experiment, an attempt to bind diverse peoples together in equality of citizenship. Our citizenship expresses the ideal that all Canadians should stand equal before the trials of life and that all Canadians should benefit equally from life’s opportunities. Three groups of citizens need particular help to reach this ideal: Aboriginal peoples, low-income working families with children, and visible minority immigrants.

Paul Martin’s government committed more than $5 billion over five years at Kelowna to reduce unacceptable gaps in Aboriginal health, education and housing. The Conservative government has abandoned these commitments. This tells Canadians where the government stands on justice toward Aboriginal peoples, but also where it stands on the role of government in improving economic opportunity for all Canadians.

A future Liberal government must return to the original Kelowna agreement and meet it in full. But it must go beyond Kelowna. The federal government must demonstrate leadership in working with Aboriginal communities to close the opportunity gaps that remain.

Too many Canadians are trapped in municipal or provincial welfare systems that all but eliminate incentives to take low-wage work. This “welfare trap” wastes resources and it wastes lives.

One of the most promising proposals to draw welfare dependents back into the labour force is a federal working income tax benefit for low-income families. The refundable tax benefit would provide a basic tax credit and an income supplement for families struggling to survive on low wages. The supplements would decline as their wage income increased and would be eliminated altogether once the family reached a basic income of $25,000. Closing this gap in the Canadian income security net could be done gradually, as resources become available, and could be supplemented by other federal-provincial-territorial partnerships to achieve full coverage of all eligible citizens and to eliminate overlap in the programs offered by different orders of government. Over time, the federal government could become the ultimate guarantor of income security for all Canadians.

It is also time to take further steps to improve our immigration system. The federal government should play a more vigorous role, in consultation with the provinces, municipalities, the private sector and settlement agencies, in ensuring that immigration policy is reflective of our labour market needs and that immigrants are more successfully integrated into their new lives here in Canada.

This nation-building project is a strategy of systematic investment by government in the people of Canada so that we can be more united, prosperous, sustainable and successful on the world stage.

A national project of these dimensions requires a strong federation with accountable government at the Aboriginal, municipal and provincial level, and a federal government guaranteeing common rights and standards of citizenship for all Canadians.

A strong federation is a partnership of equals.

A strong federation does not imply a domineering Ottawa: this country is too vast and too diverse to be run from a single centre. But a federation cannot be strong unless the federal government has the fiscal capacity and national authority to sustain the equality of our citizenship at home and protect Canadian interests and values overseas.

A strong federation also means each order of government respecting the constitutional powers of the other orders. Respect is a two-way street. The federal government should not trample into provincial, municipal and Aboriginal jurisdictions. Equally, these orders of government should respect legitimate federal jurisdictions: defending the nation and its borders, maintaining a national market, building national infrastructure and promoting common standards of citizenship grounded in the principles of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Where jurisdictions overlap, stable long-term partnership agreements need to be put in place.

In a strong federation, all provinces should be equal, but all provinces are not the same. Each came to our federation with a distinctive history that must be recognized. Quebec in particular has a unique history: the only former French colony to join Confederation with a distinct language, legal system and religious institutions. It entered the federation on the strict understanding that its distinctive institutions would receive special protection in the new federal government of Canada. Canadian unity ever since has depended on recognition of this understanding.

Quebecers, moreover, have come to understand themselves as a nation, with a language, history, culture and territory that marks them out as a separate people. Quebec is a civic nation, not an ethnic nation. It is composed of all the peoples from many lands who have come to Quebec and associate themselves with the values and traditions of Quebec and Canada.

More than 5,000 nations are recognized as such in the world, but there are less than 200 states at the United Nations. It is normal, therefore, for nations to join with other peoples to share a state. Quebecers, by considerable majorities, consider Quebec their nation and Canada their country.

To recognize Quebec — and Aboriginal peoples — as nations within the fabric of Canada is not to make some new concession. It is simply to acknowledge a fact. Nor is it a prelude to further devolution of powers. Quebec already possesses the authority it needs, in areas of health, education, immigration, manpower training, language and culture, to protect the identity of its people and to promote its economic and social development. Since the 1960s, it has opted out of national programs, like the Canada Pension Plan, while providing substitute programs that meet both its objectives and those of the federation. These negotiated rights to opt out should be respected, but equally Quebecers should have the right to opt in, to participate fully in pan-Canadian programs that expand their citizenship, increase their opportunities and improve their economic performance.

This achieved balance — between provincial autonomy and national citizenship — already allows a clear majority of Quebecers to say, with pride, “Le Quebec est ma nation, le Canada est mon pays.

Despite this functioning balance, the province of Quebec has not given its assent to the Constitution of 1982, and until it does, our federation’s architecture remains unfinished. Creating the conditions for a successful negotiation to complete our nation-building will take time. Ratification of a new constitution will require good faith and political will on all sides. When these conditions are in place, Canadians should be prepared to ratify the facts of our life as a country composed of distinct nations in a new constitutional document.

Constitutional review is for the future. Right now, Canadians are looking for a new era of co-operation among the orders of government. Together, they need to negotiate a transparent, rational and long-term fiscal relationship that accurately considers the true fiscal capacity of every order of government and then arrives at an agreement that recalibrates federal transfers and equalization to facilitate the realization of identified national goals and to ensure that less well off provinces can provide for their citizens without damaging the capacity of wealthier provinces to serve the needs of theirs. Beyond providing funds to the provinces, the federal government has an essential role in promoting common approaches to national challenges. Health care, for example, is a provincial jurisdiction, but the federal government has a legitimate role, under the Canada Health Act, in ensuring that Canadians, across the country, have access to publicly funded care that is roughly comparable in quality of service, regardless of where a citizen happens to live. We have all fought for the principle that access to health should not depend on income; we do not want a Canada in which the quality of health care, and therefore of citizenship, depends on what province you live in.

In a world of failed states and terrorist havens, Canada has learned to adapt its peacekeeping traditions to the demands of peace-building: combining military, humanitarian and reconstruction teams together to provide human security for populations in danger. This transformation of our internationalist traditions is underway in Afghanistan. If we see this mission through, we will be able to provide leadership elsewhere. If we bail out halfway, no one will turn to Canada when the going gets rough.

Canada also needs an enterprising diplomatic service and a well-funded commitment to sustainable development. We work for a world where Afghan girls can graduate from school, where Africans can develop their countries free of the burden of disease, where states emerging from strife and dictatorship can turn to Canadians to help train their judiciary, establish their police force and consolidate the rule of law.

We should substantially increase our foreign assistance budget, to meet the 0.7 per cent of GDP target first proposed in 1972 by Lester Pearson. Besides increasing resources, we need to focus our development priorities on areas where Canadians have special expertise. “Peace, order and good government” is the motto of our constitutional system and many of our government institutions — the Mounties, the Supreme Court, Elections Canada and the Auditor General, to take but four examples — evoke admiration worldwide. We should make ourselves the governance specialists of the emerging international order, just as Norway made itself the conflict resolution specialist of the 1990s. Canada should create a corps of specialists in good government — lawyers, judges, police, election monitors, public health administrators — who can be seconded overseas to work with the governments and NGOs of developing societies.

Distinctive and progressive at home, unafraid to lead abroad: this is my Canada, a country of free and equal citizens, bound together by a spine of common rights and shared traditions and devoted to expanding the circle of freedom and human rights around the world.

The conviction that guides these ideas — and the overwhelming aspiration I hear on my travels across the country as a candidate — is that as a people we are less than the sum of our parts and we hunger to be more. I want the Liberal party to bet its future on this hunger of Canadians to be more, to be better, to share a great destiny as a people.

Canadians dream of a better country and we are ready to fight to make it so.

Our brightest days, the ones that gave us good reason to be proud of ourselves, have come when we have built the nation together. Our brightest days are not behind us.

They lie just ahead.

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