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IT IS BUDGET SEASON in Ottawa and the town is rife with speculation on the timing of the next federal election and how the government’s commitment to build back better will take shape. Predicting when Canadians will next go to the polls is a favourite pastime in the salons of our nation’s capital. Between now and Budget Day on April 19, we can expect a daily dose of deep analyses of leaders’ statements, the impact of possible budget measures on public opinion, and what it might all mean for the electoral outcome in West Nova, Shefford, or Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill.
“If the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of a strong public sector, it has also shown that governments acting alone will not get the job done.”
Setting aside the horse race for a moment, it is worth considering how this year’s budget season differs from years past. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed profound flaws in the delivery of essential health and social services. Entire industries have been brought to their knees. And governments everywhere have had to acknowledge that conventional policy responses simply are not sufficient to meet the challenges we face. If the pandemic has reminded us of the importance of a strong public sector, it has also shown that governments acting alone will not get the job done. Canada needs nothing less than a whole-of-society approach to rebuilding our economy and rethinking public policies.
At least rhetorically, the federal government seems to have embraced the opportunity for wholesale changes in a number of policy areas. Building back better has given it licence to consider new approaches to energy and climate change issues, income and employment supports, and infrastructure. But completing those transitions will require strong partnerships with businesses that also embrace the opportunity for transformation.
In fact, the government has already begun to lay out their expectations. Over the last year alone, they created a new 50-30 challenge to increase diverse representation in corporate Canada, set in motion a new public-private Sustainable Finance Action Council to help scale sustainable finance in Canada, and directed the Canada Infrastructure Bank to work with the private sector to expand rural broadband and invest in clean power generation. The key question will be whether the government succeeds in finding those partners.
Throughout the pandemic, countless Canadian businesses have proven they are up to the challenge. They have adapted to the realities of the pandemic and developed new products, delivered new services and organized themselves in new ways. But too often, those businesses are being let down by policy advocates whose asks of the government fail to reflect the undeniable fact that the world has fundamentally changed in the last twelve months. Many of their budget demands in 2021 sound like the productivity and competitiveness agenda of the early 2000s or the innovation agenda of the early 2010s dressed up in COVID-19 clothing.
Fortunately, a growing number of Canadian business leaders understand the shift that is required of them. They know that looking beyond quarterly reporting toward a purpose-driven approach to running their business is table stakes to partnering with government in this post-pandemic world. They come to the discussion with a willingness to adapt and with skin in the game. They are concerned with their business’s contributions to the well-being of all their stakeholder groups, and they value equity, diversity and inclusion as guiding principles to drive their development. Equally importantly, they know that this government has the political will to usher in broad, systemic changes impacting various sectors. Those who do not commit to change may have change imposed on them.
Former Prime Minister Joe Clark often reminded his advisers that, when engaging in policy debates, one had to choose between making a point and making a difference. Making a point allows an intervener to focus exclusively on the needs of their business or their sector, undiluted by external considerations. The ask is straightforward, but it leaves the intervener on the outside looking in. Success is possible, but the intervener has less agency in shaping the decision.
Making a difference, on the other hand, requires of the intervener that they articulate their contribution to solving the policy problem, not just the benefit they are seeking. It requires openness and flexibility, and alignment with the public good, not just private gain. It is those interveners who become trusted and influential partners. And it is their efforts that are more likely to be reflected in Minister Freeland’s words on April 19 and government action in the months and years to come.
Whether it comes in the spring or fall, the federal election campaign will be a temporary distraction from the serious, long-term thinking that needs to happen if we are to recover successfully from the pandemic. The real story to watch will be how courageous our public sector leaders will be in changing their approach to public policy challenges, and how creative the private sector will be in responding to the call.