Opinion
May 7, 2012

Wicked problems in a turbulent climate

It is becoming apparent that we are entering a new phase in the constantly evolving political environment in Canada. While it is still difficult to discern the end point of this development, some recent events serve as signposts of important changes taking place during this transition period. Understanding these developments is crucial because the country is facing some major policy decisions that will need decisive leadership and direction.

It is also apparent that these changes are occurring at the same time as the government is putting its own agenda in place and the public is changing its views about the effectiveness of government and its role in addressing society’s challenges.

Like stars in the night sky, recent disparate developments in Ottawa are starting to form a constellation of actions that bring the government’s agenda into focus. For example, the cancellation of the long form census, the attempt to abolish the gun registry, a series of ad-hominem attacks on heads of federal agencies, the dismissal of former Minister Guergis from the Conservative caucus, Canada’s ineffective efforts to gain a seat on the Security Council, and the significant growth in the communications function of the PMO have all in one way or another diminished our public institutions and their leaders.

In effect, over the past five years, Canada has been led by a government with a very clear agenda to minimize the role of government, by lowering taxes, narrowing its focus, and by spending on the military, policing and criminal justice.

In addition, the recent municipal elections demonstrate that the electorate is uncomfortable with the status quo. Previously, city counselors were almost guaranteed reelection in most municipalities in Canada, but the recent elections turned out to be very dangerous for incumbents. The appetite for change resulted in massive turnovers among city counselors as well as dramatic changes in leadership in our major cities such as Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto. The most striking change took place in Canada’s largest city where Rob Ford, the anti-government and tax-cutting, 10-year veteran of Toronto politics, simply demolished his urbane rival.

If there is not enough evidence that the public is unhappy with the status quo, the November mid-term elections in the United States demonstrate that a more radical form of public displeasure is being manifested south of the border. The huge success of the anti-Obama campaign by Republicans, the emergence of the anti-tax and anti-government Tea Party, and the strong anti-government rhetoric found in significant elements of the national media demonstrate how easy it is for a one time popular president to be humiliated in less than two years.

Canada is at a crucial decision point in its history. Against this anti-government backdrop, the country needs to confront a number of “wicked problems” that include accommodating the more than 200,000 new immigrants that arrive each year in Canada, dealing with more complex demands on our publicly funded health care system, and responding to the competitive challenges of globalization and technological change.

So, what is going on that would precipitate such an unhappy populace? This is the most puzzling but crucial question if solutions are going to be found to those imminent wicked problems.

It is useful to examine some of the commentaries being offered on both sides of the border. Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist, characterizes the American political system as effectively a dysfunctional one “that knows the right answers but can’t even discuss them rationally, let alone act on them, and one that devotes vastly more attention to cable TV preachers than to recommendations by its best scientists and engineers.”

Alex Himelfarb, the former Clerk of the Privy Council Office who served three prime ministers, recently wrote on his popular blog that Canadians have lost their trust in government. He warns that “we are all losers if the replacement [of trust] is an ‘age of cynicism’ which makes positive collective action impossible.”

If both of these observers have it right, the current climate is characterized by political polarization, the rejection of evidence and rationality in decision-making, and low trust in government’s ability to solve the major problems of the day.

These are profoundly important observations for all levels of government since government, by necessity, will have to address these problems in some material way. With all of these recent anti-government developments, the ongoing challenge is for all political parties to develop a narrative that honestly sets out their plan to solve our wicked problems. In this way, we can focus on the options so that citizens can have the opportunity to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the way forward.

David Zussman holds the Jarislowsky Chair in Public Sector Management in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa (dzussman@uottawa.ca).

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