Inside Politics

Will 'stable, majority government' allow a focus on policy?

Let's hope we can take the new government House leader at his word.

During an interview with CBC News Network shortly after the unveiling of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new cabinet Wednesday, Peter Van Loan, the new House leader, spoke in hopeful tones about the next four years.

"It's a very different environment now with a majority government," he said. "There's real opportunity to get a lot of work done and get our agenda through."

Then, unprompted, expressed hope there would be an end to "political games" and "perhaps a little more focus on thoughtful debate on issues."

Hear, hear!

Thoughtful debate on issues on Parliament Hill and in the media has been sadly lacking for the last three Parliamentary sessions, which have been characterized by Liberal and Conservative minority governments stuck in survival mode. It often seemed more energy was spent trying to cut deals, slagging the opposition or preparing for an election than the business of governing. Policy, except for the most immediate and politically saleable initiatives, always seemed to take a back seat.

Journalists spent much of their time speculating on when the government would fall and who would be the one to pull the trigger. Policy positions were seen through the lens of a party wanting to gain a political advantage or appeal to a specific constituency rather than the proposal's affect on Canadians.

Aside from discussions about the survival of the Liberal party and the eventual contest to find a new leader, journalists should be freer to think about and question politicians about policy.

I've seen enough internal briefing notes to know that questions from journalists create a lot of activity within a bureaucracy, who work feverishly to prepare their ministers to field queries. If journalists begin asking questions about health care, for instance, ministers like Leona Aglukkaq, who returns to her job as health minister, must be briefed. This means she has to be prepared to answer questions, if not in the House of Commons during Question Period, then during some other encounter with journalists - admittedly, a rare occasion before the election.

So here are some areas that merit the serious discussion to which Van Loan alluded.

Health care: During the election I wrote reality checks on wait times and drug prices, two areas that deserve attention. Though we are now able to measure wait times for elective surgical procedures such as hip and knee replacements, the same can't be said for diagnostic procedures such as MRIs. And there are other aspects of health care we can't measure, such as the length of time a patient should wait in an emergency room, or to see a family doctor, or to see the specialist. The question is, why? And what role should the government play in stimulating that discussion?

As for prescription drugs, there are disturbing questions about the thousands of dollars many Canadians will have to pay, depending on where they live. Why does someone in B.C. pay more than an individual in Ontario for the same medication? These are legitimate policy questions for the health minister. Unfortunately, she has been largely silent, seemingly deferential to the finance minister, who has made promises to leave transfer payments untouched for an unspecified length of time. In other words, our health care debate has been more about money and less about the kind of care Canadians should receive.

Government services: This is something the new treasury board president, Tony Clement, will have to think about. Which services should go and which ones should stay in the wake of cuts that many feel will be more severe than the government is letting on. How about a serious discussion about the role of government? What should it do? What should it not do? One could argue that it's difficult to make sensible cuts without talking about the value of the services institutions deliver to Canadians.

The economy: This, of course, has been the government's calling card. It's Stephen Harper's first priority. Not much argument there. But perhaps we should also be asking questions about the kinds of jobs being created and the quality of training programs for displaced workers. And will the next phase of the government's economic action plan help Canada in what is becoming an increasingly knowledge-based, global economy?

Immigration: Jason Kenney is still at the helm, though he did look a tad disappointed during the swearing-in ceremony. Perhaps he wanted a promotion, given his hard work in expanding his party's base. Kenney has been a champion of programs designed to bring more temporary workers to Canada, something the provinces have been pushing for, especially Alberta. But the question becomes, beyond the immediate concerns, of say, the oil patch, are these workers providing Canada with the skills we need for the long haul? There has been little discussion.

These are a few of many important policies that need to be discussed, if not by the politicians, then by journalists, who can then begin asking questions.

We've got four years. Let's make wise use of them. Canadians will thank us.

David McKie can be reached at
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