Discussitis interminabilis: a Canadian disease
We Canadians have many virtues, but we also have our faults. One of the most worrisome is our growing tendency to substitute discussion for action on key public issues such as health-care reform, productivity improvement and energy policy.
We increasingly seem to think that a major issue is being “dealt with” when someone writes a paper, article, report or book about it. Further “progress” is then measured by the extent to which the paper, article, report or book has been peer-reviewed, conferenced, editorialized, blogged and tweeted, with the original discussants linked in and befriended by an ever-growing number of fellow discussants via the Internet.
But who’s going to do something about what’s being discussed or proposed? Where’s the acceptance of responsibility to act on what has been proposed and discussed? Where’s the implementation plan and to-do list that translates interest, concern and discussion into actions that achieve results?
Take health-care reform. The current system is financially unsustainable, especially with our aging population, and this has been realized by a growing number of academics, policy-makers, business people, health-care providers and politicians for years. The issue has been the subject of studies, reports, conferences, editorials and speeches ad infinitum, but little progress is being made toward systemic reform as distinct from tinkering with the status quo.
The federal government’s willingness to provide “no strings attached” health-care transfers to the provinces ought to open the door to systemic innovation. But, as yet, no province has produced an action plan equivalent to what Saskatchewan developed in the 1960s to lay the foundations of the current system, nor has any coalition of health-care reformers emerged in any province to move public opinion onto health-care reform ground such that the politicians will follow. On health-care reform, it’s still talk, talk, talk and no action.
The most frequent answer to the question of who’s going to do something about what’s being discussed and proposed is, of course, that “The government should do something.” If one thinks of the beaver ( Castor canadensis), our national rodent, as symbolizing the government, then our instinct when action is required is to Leave It to Beaver. But this is a singularly inappropriate answer in a time of fiscal restraint and growing public disillusionment with the ability of governments to provide big solutions to big challenges.
I’m amazed when even some of my private-enterprise friends and acquaintances take the Leave It to Beaver approach. We give ringing speeches on the virtues of private enterprise and letting the markets solve problems, free of heavy-handed government intervention. Yet, when a challenge such as improving productivity or devising a Canadian energy strategy arises, far too often the reports we present to governments consist primarily of pleas for the government to do this or that.
Far better for businesses to answer the question “What should be done?” – on productivity improvement or energy market co-ordination, for example – in this fashion: “We in the private sector intend to act, not just talk, on these fronts. Here are the 10 things we intend to do on our own initiative to advance the productivity or energy agenda. And, oh, by the way, government, here are the two or three things you could do to facilitate our actions if you so choose.”
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for discussing the great issues of the day. Canada itself was born out of a conference of colonial politicians held in Charlottetown in 1864. But when it ended, the Fathers of Confederation went out and did something. They drafted a constitution, united the colonial economies, bought Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Co. and built the longest railway in the world. They translated discussion into action on a magnificent scale. We should do likewise.
This column was published in the February 28, 2012 edition of the Globe and Mail