08/21/2011 11:35 EDT | Updated 10/21/2011 05:12 EDT

Canadians Facing a Crisis of Confidence

The great danger now emerging is that if Canadians can no longer be persuaded of the legitimacy of national action, our collective ability to build on what we have in common will gradually, but inevitably, disintegrate.

This is part one of a four-part series that outlines the crisis of confidence in national governance, and the urgent need for Canada to develop clear long-term national goals for which our federal government is directly accountable. Part one focuses on Canada's need to break out of election-cycle thinking and transform our approach to national governance and public finances.

Unnoticed in the heat of an all-too-short Canadian summer, with Parliament shuttered for an extended recess, the business of the nation quietly continues under the radar. Occasionally, a first ministers' conference or a crisis of some sort will merit enough media attention to register fleetingly in our collective psyche. But, for the most part, billions of dollars of national revenue steadily flow out of Ottawa each month, channeled to individual Canadians and to other levels of government (provincial, municipal, Aboriginal) with little or no direct accountability with respect to even the most basic national goals or objectives.

Despite a modest increase in the transparency of public affairs in recent years, the lack of meaningful oversight of intergovernmental transfers provides a poignant example of how unanswerable our federal politicians are to issues of national concern. While Ottawa transfers huge sums for a wide range of initiatives that may be justifiable in isolation, we are left with a serious lack of national coherence on the very issues these payments are meant to address. Indeed, if we measure the effectiveness of these expenditures against clear long-term national goals such as building and maintaining high-quality infrastructure, making Canada a leading green energy power, or eliminating third-world living conditions among Aboriginal Canadians, the collective impact of the spending falls well short.

Regrettably, bold, visionary national leadership that governs for the long term has been absent in Canada for a long time. Our national government rarely conveys any sense of public purpose or narrative other than winning the next election. Public action is diverted to expanding short-term opportunities for superficial consumption rather than fostering long-term opportunities for valuable investments, greater employment, and sustainable living across the country.

Not surprisingly, a growing number of Canadians are disillusioned and cynical about the prospects for good national governance and constructive public action. Our public finances appear to be constantly mismanaged, and our politicians seem incapable of looking beyond their political self-interest and re-election to respond to the national interest. Most Canadians, all too painfully aware of our new age of austerity and the need to deleverage and get out from under suffocating debt, believe that governments should do the same thing. A growing number of Canadians now support the more specific proposition that the national government should be substantially trimmed and money returned to us through lower taxes so that we can pursue private-sector alternatives to dysfunctional public services.

The great danger now emerging is that if Canadians can no longer be persuaded of the legitimacy of national action -- if we become indifferent to having a national government with the capacity to deal with matters of national concern on behalf of all of us -- our collective ability to build on what we have in common will gradually, but inevitably, disintegrate.

Once we no longer believe in the value of bold national governance -- that we are stronger when we act together to advance national ideals and goals -- we will lose all sense of joint responsibility, shared sacrifice, and national purpose. Social bonds will crumble and generational bonds will attenuate.

As we increasingly depend on provincial and local governments for action on everything from pensions and health care to infrastructure and environmental standards, disparities in both public and private investment and services will grow from province-to-province and municipality-to-municipality, leading to greater inequities and uneven opportunities across the country. Canada will be much-diminished, with an increasingly blurred and ineffective presence in global affairs, known more for the exploitation of our natural resources to the benefit of the emerging economic powers than for the talents of our innovative, globally connected population.

Surely Canada's destiny should not be to fade away as a national presence in this exciting age of instant communications and open borders? Canada's incredible diversity of geography and human and natural resources means it has enormous potential to be a significant 21st-century nation. But we will not come close to realizing this potential if we no longer recognize that only our national government, representing all Canadians, can ensure that we act coherently and responsibly as a nation.

What is urgently needed is nothing less than a transformation of our approach to national governance, and, in particular, of the management of public finances to focus on substantial long-term investments required to protect and promote the interests and aspirations of present and future Canadians. At the same time, we have an unprecedented opportunity to use the new tools of transparency - the internet, social media, etc. -- to improve accountability of public action and encourage much broader public understanding and participation in shaping our collective future.

We must start thinking outside the box and articulate firm long-term national objectives -- not just the usual empty rhetoric about Canada as an energy superpower and a compassionate and tolerant country. We must demand bold national leadership that establishes specific collective goals that engage all Canadians -- regardless of residence -- and that asks us to think beyond the horizon on behalf of the Canadians of the future. We must acknowledge the failure of our current governance models, and the widespread public cynicism with national affairs, and commit to restoring meaningful legislative oversight of government action and building new institutional frameworks that rise above regional, and other, divisions, and that hold our federal politicians accountable for the pursuit of clear national commitments.

In subsequent articles in this series, I will offer some outside-the-box thinking on the development of ambitious national objectives. I will suggest concrete examples of the kinds of institutional frameworks we need to ensure that our national leaders are held accountable. This series will focus on three areas in particular: building and maintaining our national infrastructure to the highest, most-advanced standards; making Canada a leader in green energy and sustainable living; and eliminating third-world conditions among Aboriginal Canadians.