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Lessons From Election 2011: Stop Settling for Mediocrity

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Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Liberal party did not lose the recent federal election; rather, it was missing in action.

What has been portrayed, unfairly, as a personal failure of Michael Ignatieff is really the culmination, and logical consequence, of the party's abandonment, for over two decades now, of the basic vision that underpinned its success in governing Canada for more than a century.

This is the vision of energetic national government, to meet the needs and aspirations of the people, and unite the country.

Canadians have for years -- under recent Liberal governments as much as Conservative ones -- been treated as a mere sideshow in the sport of national politics, anesthetized by the masters of political messaging and spin. The national government is no longer an instrument of the people, governing for all Canadians.

The role of our national government has been reduced to managing relations with the provinces in all the critical areas of national life. It means that the lowest common denominator of a provincial consensus defines the boundaries on national action on everything from Canada Pension Plan reform, to environmental protection, to clean energy, to health care.

National action is all about federal-provincial relations and financial transfers to provinces. And when negotiations in unaccountable federal-provincial forums -- to which citizens are uninvited -- break down, our government turns to the courts, not the people, to resolve differences from securities regulation to access to reproductive technologies. The same goes for fundamental social controversies, from polygamy to the wearing of the niqab. Too complicated to engage in discussions with the Canadian people. So much easier to bypass us completely.

No national leader or national party currently focuses on their role to speak out for all Canadians and remind us of our reciprocal obligations as citizens of this great country -- the kind of commitment and solidarity that transcends provincial boundaries and condemns indifference to the plights of others, whatever our residence.

But when parents of disabled children in Nova Scotia find it necessary to uproot their family in order to access better services in Ontario or Alberta, this is a concern of all Canadians, not just the Nova Scotia government. When residents in New Brunswick face horrendous electricity costs and need help to invest in clean energy options, this is a matter of national concern, not just a dispute between the governments of New Brunswick and Quebec about the transmission of electrical energy from Newfoundland. And when virtually all the mayors of Canadian municipalities raise the alarm about our crumbling physical infrastructure and the pathetic state of public transit, the need is for visionary and energetic national action, not a quick fix through adjusting tax revenue.

In the May 2 election, Canadians came to the polls worn down by the petty partisan politics that paralyzed the last Parliament -- the smallest adjustment to national programs or initiatives, whether banning a toxic substance or changing EI or veterans' pensions, a Herculean task. Too many individuals and families are living too close to the financial edge, with our ability to withstand an unexpected event -- from a sudden illness to loss of employment -- gravely diminished.

Too many Canadians face greatly reduced expectations and disappointments with respect to their job prospects and ambitions for the future. Too many have lost any sense that the federal government can make a difference in our lives; the appeal of conservativism reflects less a retrenchment of progressive values and much more a crisis of confidence in government's ability to serve people honestly and efficiently.

With such low expectations and no politicians providing any real answers, we settled for stable mediocrity and a newly constituted NDP opposition, dominated by a collection of accidental MPs replacing the Bloc Québécois, which may be unlikely to understand that national governance is all about the Canadian people and not all about provinces.

To reverse this trend toward national mediocrity and the related decline in our global potential (witness Canada's image as a dinosaur of climate change on the international stage and loss of a UN Security Council seat to Portugal), Canadians need the voices for bold and visionary national action to speak up. We must be reminded that there is only one government that directly represents all Canadians and that we cannot achieve our goals and aspirations if we accept that there are only provincial or local answers to the challenges we face.