Opinion
May 7, 2012

Silent Parliament, silent policy

The recent decision to prorogue Parliament on December 30th was yet another example of the unwillingness of the current government to address pressing issues of importance to Canadians. At this point, most of the commentary has been directed towards the Prime Minister’s stonewalling with regards to allegations of torture of Afghani detainees. While the detainee issue is important in its own right, the prorogation issue reaches far beyond the behaviour of Canada’s Afghani allies in a theatre of war. Instead, it goes to the heart of the role of Parliament and the nature of representative government in a modern democracy.

Canadians who have a reasonable understanding of our democratic institutions will know that Parliament exists so that citizens, through their elected officials, can hold their Members of Parliament to account for their decisions, in particular spending, and to allow for a discussion of important national issues.  

Due to the refusal of the government to meet with Parliament, there is currently no way for any policy issue to play out in a public forum. As important as the detainee issue is, the same concern exists for longer-term policy matters that need the attention of government. Most policy analysts will know that dealing with issues before they reach a crisis status gives policymakers more options and offers a chance for a more cost effective response than waiting until it is almost too late to act.

A good case in point is health care funding which has received almost no public attention during the past three years, although the government moved quickly to respond to the H1N1 pandemic.  While the government deserves credit for that, there is already overwhelming evidence within government circles that the overall health care system will be unsustainable at some point within the next five to ten years.  

Nothing could be more indicative of the failings of the government’s decision to close down Parliament than its lack of reaction to the recently released report by the Canadian Alzheimer’s Society, Rising Tide: The Impact of Dementia on Canadian Society. To underline the significance of this issue, the Rising Tide report estimates that within a generation – by 2038 – more than 1.1 million Canadians or 2.8 percent of the population will have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. In dollar terms, the study estimates that the cost of the disease will rise from $15 billion in 2009 to $153 billion in 2038. Not only will costs increase, but the rate of growth of the disease will also escalate to the point that, in 2038, a new case of dementia will be diagnosed every two minutes, instead of every five minutes as it is today.  

This two-year study provides a vivid example of a missed opportunity for Parliament and its committees (in the House of Commons or the Senate) to engage in a serious conversation about the future of health care under the assumptions used by the Rising Tide report. The authors note that, given the nature of the study, they used various assumptions to provoke a conversation in Canada about the appropriate weight that should be given to dealing with the pending dementia explosion. They also admit that they may not have definitive answers but they feel that their research “can spur discussions on care, support and research needed in light of the escalating number of Canadians living with dementia.”

Indeed, the study raises a number of complex issues such as the nature of research that may be required, the role of informal caregivers, the importance of prevention and early intervention, the need to build an integrated system of care, and pressing needs to strengthen the dementia workforce.

While proroguing Parliament for only six weeks may not seem like a long time in the ongoing efforts to improve our public policy, it reflects an attitude that long-term planning does not matter and good policymaking does not need thoughtful consideration.

The Rising Tide report provides an explicit example of a public policy “burning platform” that is crying out for parliamentary action. Years from now, Canadians entering their twilight years will be asking what their government did when it became apparent to all that there was a looming crisis with regards to the extent and scale of dementia. That is why a prorogued Parliament matters to all Canadians – whether they are young or old, interested or disinterested in public affairs.

The authors end their report with a call to action by stating, “the time to act is now.” It is too bad our Parliamentarians are not there to respond to this important challenge.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. His mother suffers from Alzheimer’s disease (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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