In August, the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs held its annual conference, Watershed Moment or Wasted Opportunity. It was framed around the question of whether the global financial meltdown of 2008-09 constituted a crisis that catalyzed positive change or a missed opportunity to rethink some of the fundamentals which might have caused the crisis.
Conference participants, including keynote speakers Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the Right Honorable Paul Martin, historian Margaret MacMillan, and journalist Doug Saunders, offered a range of answers to this question.
The causes of the crisis became a theme throughout the conference. Economists Angela Redish and Nick LePan both pointed to the creation of risky products as a deliberate policy to stimulate spending. Redish noted that as interest rates went down in the last 10 years, causing the stagnation of real household incomes, investors looked for products that would net a higher rate of return on savings while governments looked for ways to stimulate people’s consumption. Together, this caused more fragility in the economy as higher risk spending through sub-prime mortgages was encouraged.
A less common perspective on the causes of the meltdown came from economist Jeff Rubin, who said it was the energy shock – where oil prices went from $35 a barrel in 2004 to $148 in 2008 – that was a major cause of the financial meltdown. In step with several other conference speakers, Rubin sounded a gloomy note, predicting a second energy shock in the coming months that will further rock global economies now less able to deal with further instability due to the stimulus spending of the last 20 months.
Indeed, a second theme running through the conference was that our economic woes are not over yet, despite signs of recovery and Canada’s strong fiscal position going into the recession. Even Minister Flaherty, who in general sounded a positive note on the economy and on the strong and solid economic foundations of Canada, noted that the world economy is “not out of the woods yet,” although he maintained that Canadians have fought through and survived the worst of the economic crisis.
A third theme running through the conference was a sense that significant global challenges were being ignored due to the focus over the past two years on the economic crisis. These issues were catalogued by keynote speaker Margaret MacMillan and included the growing gap between the rich and the poor in most Western societies, environmental challenges, and the significant shift taking place in global power.
Both MacMillan and Paul Martin affirmed the importance of multilateral solutions, with the latter making the case for the G20. Martin argued that if greater global cooperation comes from the financial meltdown then it will indeed be viewed as a watershed moment. But he argued that to remain relevant the G20 must tackle climate change, development and foreign aid. It also must be able to anticipate and forestall crises such the recent food shortage. Economist Armine Yalnizian and former Clerk of the Privy Council Alex Himelfarb added the issues of an aging society and the need to remain a player in a hyper-competitive global economy as challenges to be addressed.
On staying competitive through increased productivity, Professor Tom Flanagan spoke of the need to slash government regulation that is insulating us from competing globally in major areas of the economy such as the media, transportation and agriculture sectors. Entrepreneur Tom Jenkins agreed that protected sectors are less competitive than those that need to compete globally. Jenkins noted that Canadians are in general not compelled to be pushy or competitive, depending on our rich asset base to support us; this can be both a good and a bad quality.
There was much discussion on global competitiveness throughout the conference, including considerations on the rise of China as a superpower. University of Alberta Professor Wenran Jiang stated that China is currently in the process of thinking strategically about which states in the international arena are allies, middle players and threats. He argued that attempts to exert power and interfere in China’s domestic affairs are unproductive; rather, countries should attempt to understand China by closely observing its internal developments.
Closing keynote speaker Doug Saunders built on many of the themes throughout the conference in a talk that looked forward to the challenges and opportunities that the increasing urbanization of the world and the economic interconnectivity between cities and towns around the globe will present.
Governments at all levels have clearly seen the value of this sort of informed discussion over the years, both by generously sponsoring the conference as well as regularly sending delegates. Public servants who have attended as delegates consistently report on how valuable their experience has been, as Couchiching inevitably exposes them to a policy-relevant discussion contextualized within a broad framework, and gives them the opportunity to engage with experts and with ordinary citizens.
Couchiching’s 80th anniversary conference will be held August 4-7, 2011, and will examine civic engagement in all its forms, scoping from local to global. Exploring the meaning and forms of civic engagement today and the paradoxes inherent within, the conference will seek to identify and discuss some of the arenas in which civic action is taking place outside of the political process. Is speed and technology at the essence of these activities or is something more lasting and fundamental happening in the realm of social transformation and participation, covering every conceivable policy area and social issue? If that is the case, how significant is this shift and what does it say about representative democracy?
Gwen Burrows is president of the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs, after serving seven years as an executive committee member on the Institute’s Board. Highlights from the 2010 conference can be viewed on the Couchiching website (www.couch.ca), and full coverage can be found on the CPAC website at www.cpac.ca.
Couchiching turns 80
A forum for non-partisan discussion on topical issues, the Couchiching Institute was founded in 1932 by the YMCA National Council as an educational body for considered discussion of national and international issues. It has become a regular gathering place for those interested in the intelligent discussion of Canadian concerns and continues to be to this day.