Not your ‘same old’ economic plan: Anne McLellan on the coalition that will use the lessons of COVID to plot the next 30 years

Not your ‘same old’ economic plan: Anne McLellan on the coalition that will use the lessons of COVID to plot the next 30 years

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole might be “the man with the plan,” but a couple of women who served in centre/centre-right governments are leading the most promising effort to re-establish a political consensus on economic policy.

Anne McLellan, a cabinet minister in the Liberal governments of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, and Lisa Raitt, a cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, are leading the Coalition for a Better Future, a new economic advisory group backed by the Business Council of Canada.

The effort stands out not only because Conservatives and Liberals have agreed to be seen working together in public, but because McLellan and Raitt are backed by a first-rate group that includes Dax Dasilva, chief executive of Lightspeed Commerce Inc.; Mark Little, CEO of Suncor Energy Inc.; and Carolyn Wilkins, a member of the Bank of England’s financial policy committee and the former senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada. More than 60 business and trade associations also have signed on. The objective is to come up with a plan for the country’s economic future, starting with a summit in Ottawa at the end of October.

“There have been lots of reports and suggestions and various things from governments of all kinds, from business groups of different sizes and backgrounds, from labour,” McLellan said in an interview earlier this month. “But one of the things that interests me is how many people, how many organizations, want to be part of this conversation. And that always leads me back to a question, which is: Why do people think there isn’t a plan?”

The following is an edited transcript of McLellan’s conversation with the Financial Post’s national business columnist Kevin Carmichael, editor of the FP Economy newsletter, about why she agreed to help lead the coalition and why its work will be better than the “same old same old.”

FP Economy:What’s the origin story of the summit? How did it come about? Who had the idea first?

Anne McLellan: The Business Council of Canada (BCC) had been thinking about putting together, or trying to put together, a broader group of people to talk about what economic growth and prosperity, what that might look like; not necessarily in the short term, but for the longer term. (BCC president) Goldy Hyder reached out to Lisa and me and we talked it through; whether we thought this was an idea that could have some traction; that it was not, if you like, the same old, same old in terms of just another report.

We weren’t sure, Lisa and myself, when we started to talk about this idea of the BCC, what the interest level would be. There have been lots of reports and suggestions and various things from governments of all kinds, from business groups of different sizes and backgrounds, from labour. But one of the things that interests me is how many people, how many organizations, want to be part of this conversation. And that always leads me back to a question, which is: why do people think there isn’t a plan? I don’t know if you follow (economist) Kevin Milligan (on Twitter), but I was struck by the fact that after this initiative was announced, he said, well, this little exercise is very interesting, but what do these people mean there isn’t a plan? There are four chapters in the last budget that talk about a plan.

There is a palpable feeling on the part of many that there isn’t a plan, or they don’t see a plan, or they don’t know where they fit in a plan

ANNE MCLELLAN

And yet, I think there is a palpable feeling on the part of many that there isn’t a plan, or they don’t see a plan, or they don’t know where they fit in a plan. And I think that’s why so many of these groups and individuals have stepped forward and have said, ‘We want to contribute,’ because I think people want to be part of the plan. Obviously they do. It’s about their own survival and self-interest right? They want to be part of the plan and they think there should be a plan, but they’re not sure there is one. What’s your view? Do you think there’s a plan?

FPE:You just flipped this around. I guess we’ll publish a Q&A by Anne McLellan with me! Do I think there’s a plan? I guess I don’t because I don’t see the consensus that I feel existed back when you were in government and in the early years of the Harper government. That brings me to my next question. What has changed from the time that you were in government? I don’t recall constant demands for a plan a couple of decades ago.

AM: Keep in mind that for the first five, six years of the Chrétien-Martin years, we were focused on dealing with a crisis. People should never underestimate how difficult that time was. (But) there was a general consensus, even though it hurt. Everybody hurt. Everybody gave something, the provinces, the cities, the Government of Canada. We did cut transfers. Governments at all levels did some really difficult things, but there was a consensus that it had to be done.

There was a sense of pulling together and then coming out of that, it was how you started to reinvest or rebuild some of the building blocks of a successful economy. It would be fair to say that at that point the whole notion of government developing an industrial policy and playing a bigger role in the economy was not in vogue at the time, whereas I think now what you see, and probably enhanced and accelerated by COVID, is governments all over the world actually developing plans that look like industrial policy where government plays a much bigger role.

It remains to be seen, I guess, whether 20, 30 years from now people will think that development is a good thing. But that is happening, and I think COVID especially, but not exclusively, has led people to realize that in spite of apparent prosperity and apparently successful social programs, there are significant and important gaps that are going to have to be dealt with if we are going to continue to prosper. Then we can get into a discussion around what is the role of government in that? What is the role of business? What is the role of civil society? And obviously, we know that there are different views sometimes, but you know what’s interesting? I was talking to someone this morning about the Nova Scotia election. This person said, ‘Anne, the Progressive Conservative government of the new premier ran to the left of the Liberals.’ So, you start to wonder, what’s changing? What’s happening?

There are a lot of moving pieces and I think COVID has accelerated the need to look at those pieces and figure out what was there, what was working for people, what didn’t, where the gaps were, why there were gaps, and what that tells us about how to go forward.

FPE:We used to do Royal Commissions, or exercises like Royal Commissions, that laid out a general consensus on complex issues. We don’t do those anymore. Why not? Are you and Ms. Raitt having to step in and do something the political class won’t do itself and at least try to achieve a consensus across parties?

AM: Yeah, it was almost like, ‘Oh, Lisa, Anne; who appointed you guys God?’ (Laughs) Look, there has been much discussion over the past number of years about whether something like a 21st century Macdonald Commission is needed. That’s a model. It takes time. How many years was the McDonald Commission? They did outstanding work, obviously. Maybe. Maybe. But that’s not what we are or who we are. Lisa and I don’t know what the coalition will see as important during these conversations and the summit, which will be held at the end of October, but maybe; maybe people will put a very fine point on the fact that coming out of our conversations and thinking that the country does need something like a Macdonald Commission. That could be one of our recommendations, but, I’m not going to prejudge that because that would be inappropriate.

This is just me. There’s a co-chair. There are members of the advisory council and dozens of members of the coalition. For me, I have to have a frame in which to try to put things, otherwise everything is too scattered and diffuse. So I kind of look at this as, how do we get to 2050? We as a country, but part of a global endeavour, how do we get there? And what does that mean for our economy, our society, and what do we need to do to have the talents, the skills, the innovation, the growth, to get us to that cleaner, greener future in 2050 because it’s not going to be easy.

We don’t know where our piece fits until we can see that big picture

I think there are a lot of pieces of a plan, whether the plan is to stimulate economic growth in more traditional ways over the next five to 10 years; whether it’s a plan to get us to that cleaner, greener, more inclusive economy by 2050; there are pieces. If you look at the members of the coalition, if you look at governments at different levels, with different political persuasions, they all have pieces of a plan. But I think for me, it’s a little bit like a jigsaw puzzle. We all have our pieces, but we misplaced the cover of the box in which the pieces were found. So we’re not quite sure where our piece fits to create that picture that gets us to 2050.

We’re all looking at each other and saying, ‘Where’s the cover of the box?’ We don’t know where our piece fits until we can see that big picture. I think maybe that’s one of the reasons people feel there isn’t a plan because they don’t know where their piece fits. Maybe this conversation is about what that big picture should look like. Then people will see where their piece fits, whether they think at the end of the day that it’s exactly the picture they wanted to create. Maybe they wanted less sky and more trees, but there’s a picture. And hopefully there’s sufficient societal consensus that we all working to build that picture with our pieces.

FPE:I like that metaphor. But is politics as we practice it here in 2021 up to the challenge?

AM: Partisan politics, parties, leaders; that’s one thing. One could have a long discussion about leadership and reflect nostalgically on the great leaders. You know what? I don’t have a lot of time for that. I’m living in the present. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past, but we’re living in the present. I think you play the hand you’re dealt. And that’s what we’re doing. Nobody wanted COVID, but we can’t sit around and complain about how things would have been so much better if we didn’t have to deal with COVID. So pick yourself up and let’s deal with it together. I actually think we’ve done quite a good job as a country coming together. There are lessons to be learned there. What did we do during COVID? We collaborated. We put to one side some of the traditional cleavages in the federation. Now, I’m not suggesting they haven’t started to re-emerge, but during the crisis, everybody worked together.

And you know what? I think Canadians liked what they saw there. I think Canadians should now be asking their federal, provincial and municipal politicians, why can’t we do that all the time? I’m not naive. Of course there are differences. There are elections and there will be differences of opinion about public policy approaches at a given time, but it’s more about the tone and the attitudes. Do all the two or three orders of government have a picture that they can all say, however our piece is shaped, we at least know what the picture is and how we fit. We can talk about and maybe even disagree, but we know what the picture is.

FPE:You mentioned that you and Ms. Raitt wanted to do something other than the same old same old. What are you going to do to make sure the summit stands out from all the others?

AM: That is in the back of all of our minds. We don’t want this to be just another report or conference or set of recommendations that governments at various levels say, ‘Thank you very much, that’s interesting,’ and go back to doing what they are doing.

I am hoping the difference will be that this isn’t just a report from the BCC; it’s not another report from the business council or another report from the Chamber of Commerce; or small business, the (Canadian Federation of Independent Business); or another union organization saying, this is what we need to see.

We are bringing a lot of those voices together. And hopefully we will be able to tell governments that this diversity of real interests, interests that have money on the table in one way or another, whether it’s actual money or whether it’s in kind, but real money on the table, a stake in the future of the economy and our prosperity and who we are as a country, that we will be big enough and diverse enough that it will be hard for governments to simply ignore us and ignore what we’re saying.

As a minister, I was sometimes very frustrated, I would say, ‘Oh my gosh, when do we stop consulting and do something?’ So governments consult a lot, but again, I have a question: Why is it that the people and organizations who are being consulted feel they haven’t been listened to? We’re doing something wrong here, and I don’t mean any individual government or any individual business group. But if people feel that in spite of so-called consultations they’re not being listened to how do we do this differently? How can we do this better? What is it going to take? And I think those are some of the issues that this coalition can address. And maybe that makes us sufficiently different that governments might pay attention.

• Email: kcarmichael@postmedia.com | Twitter: carmichaelkevin

Source: Financial Post

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