Hugh Segal’s “North American Community” idea

Sen. Hugh Segal’s new book The Right Balance presents a peculiar challenge to the reviewer. In next week’s issue of Maclean’s, I contribute a brief note on it, focusing on Segal’s main thrust—his bid to explain the common denominators of Canadian conservatism from its roots in New France to the Harper government. But Segal throws a curve in his concluding chapter, veering away from mapping the DNA of his party to float an unexpected proposal. He calls for the creation of what he labels, with significant capital letters, a North American Community. “This should be a Conservative and conservative priority,” he writes.

And what would the NAC look like? Well, something like the formative stages of the European Union. Segal proposes: fewer barriers, among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, to trade and investment; a continental policy on social and economic development (modeled partly on Canadian equalization payments for poorer provinces); cooperation of environmental, social and military activities; and— wait for it—“the creation of a North American Assembly, not unlike the early European Parliament.”

Needless to say, that’s a controversial notion. In fact, it’s probably a non-starter. I decided not the address it in the brief space available to review the book in the magazine, since it hardly seemed of a piece with the history-lesson intent of the book as a whole. On the other hand, Segal does position his NAC concept as coming out of the tradition of NATO, NORAD and NAFTA.

As well, the idea lands at an interesting moment, just after Prime Minister Harper and President Obama announced their plan to negotiate a perimeter security agreement between the two countries. Their intention is, of course, far less radical and ambitious than Segal’s proposal. Harper and Obama are aiming for a deal that would see the two countries address terrorist or criminal threats earlier, make trade easier, cooperate more on border-related law enforcement, and  work together on “infrastructure and cyber-security.”

My guess is that few will take Segal’s sweeping scheme all that seriously. Still, give him credit for trying. And here’s the part of his pitch  that I found almost made me misty-eyed with nostalgia: “The time is ripe for a White Paper that discusses what a North American Assembly would look like, how its members could be elected within the three founding countries, and what initial advisory, consultative and auditing role it might play, as the European Parliament did in its early days.”

Leave aside, for a moment, the content Segal imagines this White Paper would contain. Consider only the old-school assumption that such an ambitious, informative, debate-provoking document might be generated. The Harper government hasn’t bothered to produce anything of the sort even on policy files where its activist agenda clearly calls for one, notably crime. To cite another example, pleas from some economists for a proper policy document to be released on the fiscal implications of an aging population as part of next month’s budget are almost certain to be ignored.

Instead, we’re too often left to guess at the analytical underpinning of this government’s policy and legislation. It makes debate incoherent. Segal’s North American Community might not win many converts, but his underlying assumption that Ottawa needs to return to a pattern of big ideas being first floated, then formally fleshed out, then fully debated is more than worthy of close attention. You’d think it wouldn’t seem such a alien concept.

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