Colleague John Geddes had an insight about yesterday’s economic statement from Finance Minister Bill Morneau that deserves more attention and some amplification:
Last fall’s version of the annual update [Geddes writes] was all about long-term plans for ensuring Canada’s prosperity decades from now in a fiercely competitive world; this year’s is all about converting today’s unexpectedly strong growth into quick dividends for Canadian families.
There are obvious reasons why this year’s update would feature more short-term thinking. The big one is that Morneau’s hair is on fire and he seems unsure what to do about it. But I strongly suspect we’re also seeing the results of some belated and generalized lesson-learning among the Trudeau Liberals.
Morneau’s fall update and its two signature initiatives—indexing the Canada Child Benefit and boosting the Working Income Tax Benefit—are the work of a chastened government that has worked hard for two years to reinvent many wheels, and is (and here, I’m guessing) not sure all of it was worth the effort.
Indexing the CCB and boosting the WITB are tweaks to existing, established programs. They’ll deliver smoothly and in ways the recipients will notice and, the Liberals hope, appreciate. Morneau wasn’t above a little sleight of hand on timing—the CCB increase doesn’t take effect until next year, the WITB changes a year after that—but on the whole, these new measures will deliver billions of dollars to target sectors with minimum fuss, controversy or administrative overhead.
Contrast that with… most of everything else this government has done. The big announcements in Morneau’s fall update from a year ago—the Canada Infrastructure Bank and the Invest in Canada Hub—still aren’t up and running. Both are still hiring directors for their oversight bodies. Meanwhile, the country forgot to thank the Liberals for either of these novel ideas. I think the Infrastructure Bank is a really exhilarating long shot, but researchers and the Senate and the opposition have done nothing but kvetch, while the project’s fans have been more reticent.
And it’s not as though only Morneau’s 2016 fall update was cursed with growing pains. Just about every attempt at structural reform has run into organizational hassles, administrative bloat, delay and headaches. From the electoral-reform consultations to the parliamentary-reform consultations to Morneau’s own business-taxation consultations, the Liberals’ big attempts to reach out to Canadians for advice and ideas have been mixed at best, and catastrophic at worst.
Often there isn’t even any discernible fault: this government inherited the Phoenix pay system mess from its predecessor, for instance, and it still can’t make it work. And then there is the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. And the marijuana legalization. And Kirsty Duncan’s fundamental science review. And Navdeep Bains’s supercluster initiative. And the climate-change plan, which seems to have gone away, though it can’t stay gone for long, can it?
One of the best illustrations of how disillusioning these grand reforms can be came just today, in the form of a Radio-Canada story on Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s already much-derided digital culture initiative. Rad-Can had the bright idea to go back and interview the members of an experts’ panel that advised Joly on her reforms. Do they think it’s gone well? To be helpful, Rad-Can let them speak off the record. Turns out they think she’s made a hash of everything! “I wonder whether I’ve wasted a part of my life,” one says. I have a sneaking suspicion the minister lately wonders the same thing.
It’s not as though all of these initiatives were bad ideas. I suspect Trudeau would repudiate very few of them. Some may yet pay off big, both in generalized national wellbeing and in political advantage for the Liberals. But taken together they must be simply exhausting. A government that has run only marathons eventually discovers it is not as fond of complexity as it once was. It starts looking for quick simple payoffs.
I suspect this fondness for administrative simplicity, while late-blooming, will prove durable. Advocates for change in just about any field would do well to consider whether there are existing, proven mechanisms for getting results that they could push, as opposed to sweeping two-year reform projects or policy startups of shaky legitimacy and untested workability. In one of the fields I obsess over for no easy-to-explain reason, science policy, the longstanding and lately poorly funded federal granting councils suddenly look pretty good: they’re accepted by researchers, they get money into the intended hands, and what’s suddenly highly valuable, they’re unlikely to be the source of unpleasant surprises if they’re used to deliver more money.
Sturdy policy pipelines like that will be valuable in any number of policy areas, as a government that’s had to battle through nasty controversy begins to realize it is closer to its next rendezvous with voters than to its last.
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