Opinion-Policy Nexus

Published Apr. 22, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Out in computerland, they talk a lot about “hitting the reset button.”

This implies getting rid of all the bad stuff that went before, correcting mistakes and starting over again. A new beginning, you might say.

The expression has crept into politics. The Harper government promised to “hit the reset button” on plans to spend — what? — $40 or $50 billion on F-35 fighter aircraft. The government has not said what, if anything, has happened in the months since it ostensibly hit the reset button. Perhaps the bright lights in the Department of National Defence are still labouring 24/7 to wrap their heads around the awkward concept that there are more suitable aircraft available at a (much) more reasonable cost.

Perhaps the government will tell us before the next election (in October 2015) what it is up to. It may be hung up on a dilemma: how to launch a new beginning without admitting past mistakes on the F-35 file. But let’s leave the Conservatives to rationalize their way out of that dilemma and move on.

This seems to be an opportune moment to hit a few other reset buttons.

With the election still 30 months away, there is time to plan new beginnings and present them to the electorate. With Thomas Mulcair of the NDP, Daniel Paillé of the Bloc Québécois and now Justin Trudeau of the Liberals, there are three party leaders in Ottawa who were not there in the 2011 election. Conditions exist for new approaches.

The first reset button to hit is whatever button controls the temperature in the capital. There is a meanness, even viciousness, that did not always characterize federal politics. Without wishing to wallow in nostalgia, things were different in the first Trudeau era. Pierre Trudeau was never lovable. He was tough and often aloof, but he commanded respect and loyalty. Robert Stanfield, the Tory leader, was intelligent, moderate and every inch a gentleman. NDP leader Tommy Douglas was the soul of integrity; he’s sometimes described as the “last honest politician in Canada.”

The past is gone, but the present can be changed and the future improved. Let’s start with an all-party commitment to eliminate attack ads. Just because American politicians wallow in them, it doesn’t mean we have to indulge in them in Canada. They may or may not work — and I have grave reservations about the efficacy of Conservatives’ current attacks on Justin Trudeau — but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that they lower the level of politics for all participants. They squeeze out reasoned argument. They turn politics into a form of mixed martial arts.

As the level of discourse sinks, electors conclude that none of the combatants is worthy of their support, and voting turnout declines. The elimination of attack ads would help restore respect to politics as an honourable profession.

Another reset button is the transparency button. All politicians preach the gospel of openness. In opposition, Stephen Harper was an ardent advocate of open government. A Conservative government, he promised, would be an open book. Its policies and procedures would be transparent to all. Its ministers and officials would be held accountable for everything they did.

It hasn’t turned out quite that way. Today’s government is the least open since the Second World War (when there were grounds for opacity). Transparency is becoming a fiction (witness the deterioration of the Access to Information Act). And accountability is a joke (ministerial responsibility these days means ministers not doing anything that would embarrass the prime minister or his government).

Would it do any good to hit that transparency reset button? Sure. Let’s start with the F-35. The government could take the people into its confidence. After all, it’s taxpayers’ money. Why do we need new fighters? What role(s) would they be expected to fill? What planes has the government considered? Why did it choose the one it did? Not least, how much, honestly, will the darned machine really, truly cost?