BUSINESS WATCH

Sparing a thought for fairness

A country is not a business and a government should stand for much more than economic efficiency’

Peter C. Newman April 23 1990
BUSINESS WATCH

Sparing a thought for fairness

A country is not a business and a government should stand for much more than economic efficiency’

Peter C. Newman April 23 1990

Sparing a thought for fairness

BUSINESS WATCH

PETER C. NEWMAN

A country is not a business and a government should stand for much more than economic efficiency’

At a private Ottawa dinner party on April 6, 1988, held to mark the 20th anniversary of Pierre Trudeau’s assumption of power, the former prime minister laid out a political agenda for the 1990s that contained an interesting catchphrase, being increasingly heard in the current Liberal leadership race. “For too long,” he proclaimed, “we have experimented with the dark side of excellence. For too long this country has suffered from politics that stresses economic efficiency instead of social fairness—and it’s in that direction our party must make its next policy thrust.”

The notion of battling against this “dark side of excellence” was lost sight of during John Turner’s stewardship, when Liberals split into warring factions that agreed on nothing except that the party should somehow get back into office. Turner, with his erratic leadership style and personal crusades, abandoned his party’s traditional formula: championing a loose ideology best described as “sedate populism”—a posture that for generations allowed the Grits to strike the most marketable balance between elitism and egalitarianism. At the same time, the party lost its internal capacity to formulate new policies, still relying on the outdated resolutions of the 1960 Kingston Conference.

“When we talk about ‘the dark side of excellence,’ ” explains Senator Jack Austin, the intellectual godfather of the idea and its alternatives, “our concern is with the loss of tolerance, the absence of compassion and the downgrading of fairness, as expressed in this neoconservative age. There has been a hard edge in Brian Mulroney’s pursuit of national competitiveness and a subsequent dilution of optimism among Canadians. In contrast, Liberal policy for 40 years was based on the politics of optimism through the emphasis on equality of opportunity.”

Austin, who was once Trudeau’s principal secretary and later became his powerful minister of state for social development, carefully

differentiates between the Liberal idea of individual, state-guaranteed rights and the collective concepts of the Tories. The Tory ideas, he claims, depend on benefits trickling down from a process that inevitably strengthens the already strong. “Under the Mulroney government,” he charges, “income disparity has begun to widen and its changes in the tax system have reduced the impact of progressive taxation, putting ever more economic power in fewer and fewer hands.”

He added, “Instead, governments must return to the animating idea of fairness. A country is not a business and a government should stand for much more than economic efficiency. It’s ‘the dark side of excellence’ that throws people below the fairness line, because those who have already succeeded maintain a vested psychological interest in the lack of success of others in the system.”

Austin and the growing number of influential Liberals who share his views hope that the June leadership convention will adopt their initiatives instead of being reduced to a pure popularity contest. “I don’t believe,” says Austin, “that to be successful in the 1990s a political leader needs to be personally strident nor make more and more spectacular promises to

offer even richer rewards for the self-interest of the already comfortable.”

Although his approach has won converts in all camps, Austin himself is backing Paul Martin because he considers him to be the party’s most effective consensus builder; because he is most clearly dedicated to advancing Canadian sovereignty; and because he has emerged as the natural leader of the anti-“dark side of excellence” platform. “Paul,” he says, “is also realistic about not raising unrealizable expectations among voters. People no longer believe that governments can deliver everything. The age of political magic is over. Hard work, fairness and realism—that’s what matters now.”

While Austin worries about the size of the federal deficit, he firmly opposes any retreat from universality in social programs. “If we maintain proper standards of fairness, sacrifices as well as benefits will have to be equally distributed,” he insists. “The principle of universality was originally based on the idea that there was a charter of economic rights for all Canadians in which each citizen is entitled to basic support. Those who advocate doing away with universality are basically saying that society will confer special benefits on the needy, which hurts people’s pride and sense of optimism.”

Austin wants to implement the annual guaranteed income system recommended by the Macdonald commission and limit massive federal intervention in the economy to redressing social ills. He advocates renegotiating the Free Trade Agreement with the United States— and expanding it to Mexico. “There is an inevitable current running in North America now,” he notes, “to look at some of the larger problems in a tri-national context. We are going to be forced in this country to move away from low-labor-cost types of activity to higher value-added products to stay ahead of Mexico’s competitive advantages.”

He would like to see the Federal Business Development Bank turned into a source of equity capital for new Canadian enterprises, instead of financing strip clubs. He is against government subsidies, unless the economic activity involved is basic to national purposes.

Austin supports creation of an elected and effective Senate but opposes any move to make provincial representation equal, opting instead for roughly equivalent regional seating, so that the Atlantic provinces, for example, rather than Prince Edward Island alone have the same number of representatives as Ontario. He wants Quebec to possess special upper chamber veto privileges in areas that touch its jurisdictions.

Jack Austin is not the only senior Liberal trying to divine a future direction for his party these days (former John Turner adviser John Payne is another), but most of the rank and file are so busy manipulating delegate selections that little policy deliberation is going on. If the Liberals form Canada’s next government, they must start to get serious about how to salvage the country’s future.

Finding a practical way to resolve the problems created by “the dark side of excellence” would be a good start.