On the big screens in Vancouver, big (vague) policy hints

Usually at a modern political convention the big-screen video presentations are pure fluff and it’s the speeches that provide the odd bit of policy content. This afternoon in Vancouver, though, I heard at least as much to think about in the party infomercial that was shown before Michael Ignatieff’s triumphant march to the podium as I did in the speech he unspooled when he got there.

The video was pretty compelling, especially the part when the faces of Liberals, some easily identifiable, some anonymous (at least to me), appeared in a tightly edited sequence, each declaring a dream for the country. Here are a few that I scribbled down: “affordable child care,” “protected pensions,” “the dignity of First Nations,” “college and university available to all,” “justice applied fairly and equally.”

And here are the policy questions that occur to me as I ponder that partial list.

1. What exactly is “affordable” when it comes to child care? Doing a quick online check, I find a 2005 report in which Statistics Canada gives a range, for full-time care for a toddler at a centre, from $603 a month in Ontario (that’s the median, meaning half pay more, half less) to $380 a month in Newfoundland. (Most parents I know pay more.) One key question is whether any new government spending should be targeted at parents whose incomes are so low that these costs are truly unaffordable, or to adopt a more universal approach. Ignatieff got a big hand for broadly endorsing “early learning and childcare” for every kid. But what exactly would he propose Ottawa pay for? Which parents would a Liberal government set out to help first and most?

2. The words “protected pensions” to me conjure up the spectre of a massive federal financial burden. If there’s one thing the current recession has done it’s shatter the illusion that defined benefits in the private sector are rock-solid. So, should the federal government guarantee company pensions? Or, if that’s being considered, might it make better sense to instead enhance the existing public pensions for gainfully employed Canadians, in case their private pensions collapse? Whatever the Liberal party might be getting at, this is huge public policy issue with massive implications for the federal treasury.

3. Any Liberal talking about the dignity of First Nations must be thinking of the 2005 Kelowna Accord, negotiated by then-prime minister Paul Martin with the premiers and Aboriginal leaders. It was a $5-billion five-year deal aimed at improving education, housing services, and the economies of reserve communities. But details of exactly how all that would be achieved—who would control the money and provide the services?— was left to be worked out later. Meanwhile, Martin scrapped the bid by Robert Nault, Jean Chretien’s Indian Affairs minister, to impose real accountability on reserve governance and finances. How much of Kelowna would Ignatieff revisit to provide that dignity? Would he insist on more details than Martin did about how the money would be spent? And would he revive the difficult, but I would say essential, bid to insist on accountability in the governance in First Nations communities?

4. I doubt anybody would object to the goal of making college and university accessable to all. Indeed, in his speech Ignatieff earned a nice hand by declaring that “every student who gets the grades” should get to go to university or college. Absolutely. Last time I looked, however, that was mainly a provincial jurisdiction. Would Ottawa dramatically ramp up its offerings in terms of scholarship or loans or whatever? Does Ignatieff really want to wade into that jurisdictional scrap? Or is this merely an aspiration he wants to nudge the provinces gently toward? And is the idea to lower tuition fees in general, or to boost targeted funding for the most needy students? Very different approaches, and choosing one or the other is likely to set off loud arguments rather than enthusiastic cheering.

5. I’m not too sure what, in specific, a plea for justice to be applied fairly refers to in Canada today, but I’m intrigued. Is there a glaring systemic problem with the way our courts or Crown prosecutors or police carry out their assigned tasks? The news sometimes tells us about a particularly glaring miscarriage of justice, of course, but I’m not sure what broad federal policy initiatives are called for by these stories. Anyway, I’ll ask around and see what that one was about.

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