Demographers tell us that “population is everything”. They’re not far wrong. In the early 1950s, the largest item in Ontario’s budget was transportation – think of the Toronto subway, the Gardiner Expressway, the Don Valley Parkway and the 401. This was before the impact of the baby boom on the school system was fully felt, but as this contingent grew older the spending followed.
Dalton Camp once joked that Bill Davis “built a university or community college within walking distance of every family in the province,” and he wasn’t far wrong. Spending on all levels of education quickly outgrew transportation.
With the national decision to embrace medicare in the 1970s, public health spending grew accordingly, and it is no accident that the mid ’70s also saw the beginning of a significant growth of both deficit spending and gradually rising taxes, until 1993, the first (and last) year that health care spending in Ontario actually declined year over year. Ah yes, I remember it well.
We are now at the point when the baby boom generation (of which I am a member) is confronting its “golden years.” When Bismarck set the age of retirement at 65, life expectancy was well below that. Not any more. People are working longer, as they consume pensions and health care.
We are facing a retirement crunch, a pension crunch, a health care crunch, and more broadly, a crunch that younger people have to confront: governments (and individuals) have indulged current spending at the expense of long-term investment, and so we are now confronting a basic question of inter-generational equity.
The baby boom generation did not sit around university cafeterias worrying about jobs and debt. Our own parents – so rightly called the Great Generation – had lived through depressions, fought in wars, and saved.
We do not face these issues as a country quite as bluntly as Japan or even Europe because immigration growth is still embraced as a fundamental good in Canada (although showing some signs of wear and tear), but face them we must. It does not require slashing and burning, but it does require decisions, and leadership that people can believe in.
Kim Campbell once memorably said that elections are not a good time to be discussing fundamental issues of public policy, and in the current political culture it is hard to imagine anything approaching a serious national conversation on these questions.
But we desperately need it. It is not so much about bigger or smaller government as the capacity of all governments to be able to adjust current entitlement spending to allow for more spending on the future, on infrastructure, on education. It requires an honest recognition of the obligations each generation owes to the other, and to those whose time will come. It is about encouraging a real discussion on the possibility of Canada (as it did in the 1850s, the early 1900s, and in the post war years) setting out to allow its population to grow at an even faster rate, and at the same time to shift our economic and energy growth to a genuinely sustainable path. It also means dealing with our greatest moral unfinished business as a country, the relationship between indigenous Canadians and those who have come to these shores in the last few hundred years.
It will also mean confronting the discussion that has begun in Quebec about ending the final taboo – surely it can be said that our time is trying to do to death what the Victorians tried to do with sex – will not be happening in the next election either. Public opinion is ahead of the politicians here as well (as they are on climate change, taxes, and many other things) and families and their doctors quietly wrestle with trying to determine the balance between treatment, pain management, and dignity for a generation that is living longer than ever before in human history.
And so it will increasingly be left to a serious dialogue between and among Canadians of all ages, young and old, well off and insecure, to wrestle with the choices we confront as a country. While the three P’s of parliamentary politics, “pandering, personal attack, and partisanship” dominate question period, we shall have to find a way to make sure the conversation happens and the right decisions are made.
Photo by Simon Hayter