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OP-ED: Canada needs a collective strategy for post-pandemic economic growth - and we can't afford to fail

Senator Tony Dean

We saw some rare good news stories on Canada’s Senate in past weeks following a report from 12 Senators on their extensive talks with economic and social policy experts and leaders on post-COVID economic recovery. Senators heard a broad consensus on the need for increased immigration, investment in national early learning and childcare programs, greater investments in training and upskilling workers, and the obvious importance of strong digital and trade infrastructure.

Other key recommendations included the need to establish “fiscal anchors” for debt management, tax reforms, boosting exports, a potential temporary increase in the GST, the shift towards a digital economy and the increasingly important and complex transition to a low-carbon economy. The economic drag of internal trade barriers was also top of mind, given that this alone would boost Canada’s real GDP by four per cent. Similarly, improving tax compliance could recover between $7-billion and $25-billion currently lost through aggressive tax avoidance schemes. And the post-COVID economic recovery needs to be sustainable and inclusive so that all people and regions benefit from growth and prosperity.

The bottom line is that Canada needs to act now to ensure our global competitiveness and future economic and social well-being in a rapidly changing world. We have heard about many of these opportunities before but rarely in a comprehensive and inter-related manner or with a proposed “how-to” implementation plan.

The report recommends that a Prosperity Council be launched by the federal government. It would ideally bring together representatives from all provinces and territories in addition to sectoral advisory bodies representing business, labour, and equity-seeking groups, as well as civil society. The Council’s mandate would be three-fold: 1) To support co-operation among federal and provincial governments; 2) to undertake consultations with civil society to foster social dialogue; and 3) to share proposals for public policy action and relevant research findings in order to build consensus across Canada. The Council would support the identification of key priorities and also monitor Canada’s economic and social performance according to selected targets and key indicators to promote sustainable, inclusive and shared prosperity.

This is a tall order, but without an effort of this magnitude, the changes we desperately need for our economy to grow and thrive will remain beyond our reach. We know with certainty that our national government can’t do this on its own in a federation—and neither can provinces—especially in this federation, which is now probably more divided than it has been in decades.

Interprovincial and federal-provincial relationships have been marred by partisan infighting, in some cases placing the desire to score political points above the health and safety of the public.

We saw one province initially shunning federal government support and turning instead (unsuccessfully) to the United States for additional ICU capacity, while another province with COVID cases rising to dangerous levels, turned down federal aid until after the recent federal election, seemingly putting politics ahead of the health of citizens. If we are going to look out for the interests of Canadians and build a more inclusive and prosperous country, we must find better ways of working together.

We have seen bare-bones levels of improved intergovernmental co-operation and collaboration during the COVID crisis but also some of our worst failures as evidenced by the absence of national standards for long-term care homes and varied approaches to the collection of, and ability to share, critical public health information.

It’s tough enough for unitary national governments to tackle COVID-19. It’s much harder in federations. We have more work to do and we’re trying to catch up.

So it is way past time to start building bridges again as opposed to undermining them. It’s time for an alliance of government and civil society leaders choosing some high-value priorities and working together to achieve them, monitoring and reporting on progress as they go.

If we are going to re-build trust across our society, we will need all leaders to think and act beyond their parochial interests. Choosing two or three high-priority and high-impact issues or opportunities with national impact and driving towards them as a national priority should be the first step.

The bottom line is that we must forge a collective strategy, and we can’t afford to fail.

This op-ed appeared in the November 1, 2021 edition of the Hill Times.

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