Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Squabbling In Serious Times

As the logic of conflict drives Parliament irresistibly toward the moment when the great assembly is dissolved and a nation is called on to decide its destiny, I hope my fellow citizens will bear in mind the sage observation that one esteemed Canadian recently shared with another: "We're f***ed." Yes, f***ed. I take no pleasure in writing that word. Indeed, I wish I could instead write "blessed" or "happy" or "delighted." Fine words, all. And pleasant to behold. Not like "f***ed." Even softened with an array of asterisks, "f***ed" is sure to scorch the eyeballs of decent people. But right now, decent people need their eyeballs to be scorched. And so, I repeat, we are f***ed. For this insight, we must thank Francis Joseph "Frank" McKenna, the 27th premier of New Brunswick. It was one year ago, at a policy conference in Montreal, that Mc-Kenna had his epiphany and leaned over to whisper it in the ear of Paul Edgar Philippe Martin, the 21st prime minister of Canada. (For reporting the exchange, we must thank Don Martin, mere journalist.) The conference was unusual for a partisan affair. Instead of nostrums and platitudes from loyalists, the organizers asked independent experts to be blunt. And they were. Disturbingly so. The most unsettling speaker was David Dodge, former deputy finance minister and former governor of the Bank of Canada. Healthcare costs are now rising seven per cent a year and are expected to grow eight per cent a year over the next decade, Dodge warned. Even if the economy does well over that decade, the costs of health care would rise "about one-and-a-half times as fast as revenue." Driving that is population aging, which will also push up many other costs and needs. How will we pay for it? Productivity growth would help but Canadian productivity is moribund. If that doesn't change "we will condemn ourselves to a standard of living which is in decline relative to the rest of the world this decade and in absolute decline next decade." Put it all together and it means Canadians will work more, retire later, pay higher taxes, receive reduced services -and get poorer. And this isn't Dodge's quirky view, please note. It's orthodox policy analysis based on demography and other relatively predictable factors. We need "an adult conversation" about this, Dodge insisted. And that, I suspect, is the moment when Frank McKenna leaned over to Paul Martin and whispered, "we're f***ed." An adult conversation? Impossible. In the year between Dodge's speech and today, what great matters of public policy have parliamentarians and the wider political class been discussing? Mandatory minimum sentences for pot growers. Who wrote "not" on that document? Whether the government has to tell MPs how much its bills would cost if passed. The propriety of calling the Government of Canada "the Harper government." Whether the long-form census should be mandatory. The tendering process for purchasing jets. Whether the corporate income tax rate should be 15 per cent or 18 per cent. Public financing of arenas. Tax credits for volunteer firefighters. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin before they realize what a colossal waste of time and effort it is and they all go home. Look at an immediate cause of this Parliament's demise: Jack Layton said the NDP might support the Conservative budget if it put an additional $700 million toward the Guaranteed Income Supplement; the Conservatives agreed to put $300 million toward it; Layton said that wasn't good enough. And so a relatively minor difference of opinion about a relatively minor program will finish off the government and we will have an election in which there will be endless claims of hidden agendas, names will be called, nonsense will be past off as fact, honourable members will tell bald-faced lies about stuff that doesn't really matter, and that which urgently needs debate and direction will be ignored. Do I exaggerate? In the 2008 election, St├ęphane Dion proposed that Canada adopt a carbon tax with offsetting tax cuts. It was a serious response to the serious problems of climate change and energy security. There were serious arguments in favour of Dion's proposal and there were serious arguments against. But the debate wasn't serious. It was a joke. Dion's opponents resorted to gas-pump populism and the media kept things nice and stupid by talking endlessly about the political implications of Dion's al-legedly "complicated" policy while making almost no effort to actually examine and explain the policy. The whole pathetic exercise served only to demonstrate the wisdom of Churchill's observation that democracy is the worst form of government aside from all the others. At this very moment, the Middle East is in turmoil, we're embroiled in a second war, rising oil prices threaten to choke off the economic recovery, food prices are soaring, the future of nuclear power is in doubt, and global financial imbalances threaten another implosion. Plus, there's climate change. And that storm David Dodge talked about last year is now one year closer. One might think that the media, politicians, and voters would have some important matters to discuss. Big decisions to make. But no. Thanks mainly to the continued boom in commodities, the Canadian economy is doing well. Of course, every commodities boom ends in a bust. But why worry? The complacency that lay across the country like a thick, soft blanket prior to the panic of late 2008 has once again settled over the landscape. Come whisper in my ear, Frank.