Column

THE PERFECT OUTSIDER

MARY JANIGAN September 9 2002
Column

THE PERFECT OUTSIDER

MARY JANIGAN September 9 2002

THE PERFECT OUTSIDER

Column

MARY JANIGAN

David Zussman takes on Ottawa’s toughest files. Like sovereignty.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW the hot issues in Ottawa this fall, you need only ask what policy expert David Zussman is doing. The innovation agenda is stalled, saddled with high-flying targets and few practical prescriptions. So Zussman has just joined a new advisory committee to Industry Minister Allan Rock. Health policy is beset by intergovernmental squabbles— and, remarkably, there are two rival federal inquiries underway. So Zussman has organized a conference at the end of this month to put all of the stakeholders in the same room to forge a consensus.

Perhaps most importantly, Ottawa is only belatedly realizing how much the nation has slipped into the U.S. ambit since those jets plowed into the twin towers last Sept. 11. We must now allay U.S. concerns about security and defence if we want to keep the border open to our goods and services. Meanwhile, our economies are becoming increasingly intertwined. So Zussman, president of the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum, is launching a three-year investigation into the key sovereignty issues around Canada’s place in a North American economy. “There is no question the American agenda, particularly the one revolving around security, is very much our own now,” Zussman says. “When dealing with a partner who is so much bigger, it is very hard to get an equal say.”

The ability to take such a long-term perspective is a highly valued commodity in Ottawa these days. Times are perilous. The new Clerk of the Privy Council, Alex Himelfarb, is a go-getter: he has just shuffled his key policy analyst on border issues into a pivotal operations role to move proposals through cabinet. He has launched reviews of everything from foreign policy to ethics, struggling to patch together an inspiring Speech from the Throne this fall. But it has been tough to pry ideas out of wary officials when their political bosses are embroiled in leadership wars. And it is

even harder to discuss policy when few outside Ottawa are even paying attention.

Which brings us to Zussman, the insider’s perfectly placed outsider. Born in Montreal in January, 1947, Zussman has somehow straddled the academic and political worlds throughout his career. He has taught public policy and management at three universities. He has worked as a policy analyst with five federal departments including the Privy Council. He oversaw the Liberal transition into government in 1993, painstakingly figuring out what the Liberals wanted to do—and how the government should be structured to help them do it. He has the trust of Jean Chrétien—and the attention of the bureaucracy. Liberal Senator David Smith recalls that when Chrétien formed his first cabinet in 1993, he kept advisers like Smith in an outer room, ready for consultation about their area. “But Zussman was always in there,” says Smith. “He is insightful and practical and creative.”

Smith is talking Ottawa code: he means that Zussman is useful on policy because he understands the compromises of power. Himelfarb will consult Zussman on many major items in the throne speech, including the ethics package. Zussman’s practical and conciliatory approach reflects the operation of the forum itself, with its diverse membership of government, corporate and not-forprofit groups: it tackles four issues for three years at a time—and it consults all of the stakeholders on each issue before it produces a report.

He knows the mere mention of greater continental integration is controversial. ‘But if you do not talk openly, it may happen inadvertently.’

Presciently, the forum’s last policy round, launched in 1999, included Canada’s place in a North American economy. Zussman reasoned that economies were integrating faster than Canadian policy-makers could deal with pivotal issues such as lagging productivity. He probed attitudes toward closer political and economic ties in Canada, Mexico and the U.S. (Americans are basically not interested in a more formal relationship.) He examined the European Union experience. He looked at everything from energy to the environment. Zussman knows the mere mention of greater continental integration is controversial. “But if you do not talk openly, it may happen inadvertently,” he says, “and you may end up giving away things that are important.”

Such talks are especially crucial in the wake of Sept. 11: if we want to keep the border open, we must deal with the Americans’ preoccupation with security and defence. “Everything on Capitol Hill is looked at through the security prism,” says former Canadian diplomat Paul Frazer, now a Washington consultant. “Look at the amounts of money passed for security-related issues. Virtually everything else is at a standstill.”

We must respond to these pressures. Although Canada will not be part of the new U.S. Northern Command, which will make contingency plans for continental defence out of NORAD air defence headquarters in Colorado, Canada is negotiating with the U.S. to station military planners from the army, navy and air force in Colorado. The two forces could then coordinate their activities. “If we do nothing,” says Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate committee on nation security and defence, “we are going to give up our sovereignty.”

That word again: sovereignty. Zussman is ahead of the curve once more. Over the next three years, the forum will look at the extent to which Canadian values in everything from the education system to health delivery and culture are worth preserving as economic forces and security concerns tug the two nations together. “We will want to be able to draw a line in the integration sand,” says Zussman. And he may bring vision to an unfocused nation. ISl

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca