06/20/2012 05:48 EDT | Updated 08/20/2012 05:12 EDT

A Former Prime Minister's Advice on Running Canada


Former prime minister John Turner was hosted by the Economic Club of Canada in Montreal the week of June 18 for an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first election as an MP. Despite battling an intense cough and other health issues, his talk -- focused largely on the issues of fixing our country's growing democratic deficit -- provoked significant emotion among members of the crowd.

Turner's words come at an important time. He clearly articulated what's wrong with Parliament these days -- forced blind partisanship, omnibus bills and the like -- and went so far as to state that the only whipped votes in Parliament should be a throne speech and a budget.

Turner is right about the need for democratic renewal. It's already difficult enough to convince Canada's brightest minds to leave their family behind and sometimes take a significant pay cut to come to Ottawa. Having a system in which these bright minds -- who would theoretically compose Parliament -- become merely an obstacle to rule by decree only makes matters worse.

The by-product, of course, of the absence of Canada's finest in politics combined with MPs blindly towing the party line is worse legislation. But let us allow for the following question: How does one square democratic renewal -- which would presumably move us toward a political framework in which the prime minister is less powerful in practice than he is now -- with the need for decisive action to tackle Canada's significant challenges of the coming decades?

European states, many plagued by domestic unrest and riddled with debt, are forced to take action to get their finances in order. A reduction in defense expenditures and a general public sentiment to "withdraw from the world" appear to have taken hold. This comes as the eurozone nears collapse, thus weakening not only Europe's military prowess on the global stage, but also its united economic presence.

Canada appears to be headed in the opposite direction. Blessed with abundant natural resources, so far on more solid financial footing than many European states and situated far from any current zone of conflict, Canada has started to put more money toward world policing (e.g. Libya, Kandahar). The Canadian military is also beginning to show more clout in the Arctic region, an area that could become increasingly contested as climate change causes the Northwest passage to thaw.

Having been for quite some time a country economically preoccupied with the United States and Europe exclusively, Canada has now begun to widen its gaze toward Asia and the Americas. Canada has finally received an invitation to join talks set to create a free trade zone that could encompass half of the global economy, and continues to deepen trade ties with China.

Advancing Canadian interests along all these international fronts requires putting forward a strategic vision that could prove to be both controversial and divisive. More importantly, it requires decisive action such as the removal of obstacles to trade, or the continued rebuilding and reorganization of the Canadian military.

And this is just when it comes to national defense and international affairs. We haven't even begun to talk about the need for fiscal restraint and public service reform as our country braces for a significant demographic shift that will render our population collectively older. The associated fiscal and social challenges will be unprecedented.

John Turner has a knack for being simultaneously brief and wise. And at this event, he didn't disappoint. He reminded the crowd of something so elementary, yet unfortunately lacking in so many ways in today's Ottawa -- he told us that politics is about people.

The minute it becomes harder for the prime minister to wield parliamentary power -- whether it be through electoral reform or democratic renewal within the existing electoral system -- the more essential it becomes for him or her to act as a broker and not as a whip. Whether he or she must win over more MPs to pass legislation, or greater segments of the Canadian population at election time, the result is the rallying of Canadians around a particular vision and the advancement of national unity.

In short, unlike the current strategies of Stephen Harper and Thomas Mulcair, the prime minister in order to win would have to unite and not divide Canadians. In other words, he or she would have to put people before politics. One can exploit natural resources and rebuild all the military all one wants, but these actions are not worth it over the long run if the electorate must be divided regionally on a constant basis in order to achieve them.

Limiting the power of those who have it not only renders us more free -- it also renders us more united. Only when our country is united -- only when every region is on board -- can it truly tackle the challenges it faces.

At this important crossroads in Canada's history -- a time at which a majority government has been formed with the lowest level of support from Quebec since the 1917 conscription crisis -- John Turner is doing us a big favour by reminding us of this fact.