Canada Does Not Need a Ten-Year Plan

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The Toronto Star has this week run a chilling op-ed by Irvin Studin, editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief Magazine. “Canada needs a 10-year plan,” Studin avers. And since “there are not many examples out there for us among today’s federal democracies,” Canadians would do well to imitate the “huge Chinese state, [which], for all its pathologies, is today able to think and plan long term—to deliver the world’s best transport infrastructure over time, and to constantly work (imperfectly but with extreme seriousness) to improve its systems of health, education, innovation and governance.”

There are at least three good reasons Canadians should reject Studin’s suggestion outright.

First, in dynamic organizations as in advanced democracies, ten-year plans often turn out to be a colossal waste of time and money. “Strategic plans” were all the rage in various walks of Canadian life a little less than a decade ago, and many of them, duly printed and bound, are today collecting dust—antiquated by administrative, economic, policy-related and myriad other unforeseen situational pressures. Here’s a thought experiment. Pick any date on the calendar from the last hundred years, then consider what people were planning for a decade earlier. Without exception, you’ll find forks in the road that we now acknowledge as historic, some of which seemed inconsequential, others perceived to be true game-changers. A short list of just some of the surprises that have scotched the best-laid plans of Canadian politicians in recent decades would have to include the oil shocks of the 1970s, 20% interest rates in the late 1980s, the end of the Cold War in 1991, the devastating 1992 recession, the proliferation of the internet in the mid-1990s, the 1995 referendum on Québec sovereignty, the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession of 2008, and the election in 2016 of Donald Trump as U.S. president. Imagine how a ten-year plan written by Mackenzie King’s government in 1937 would have read a decade later. The mind boggles.

The Canadian prime minister most enamoured of the sort of planning advocated by Mr. Studin was Pierre Trudeau, who for the better part of sixteen years in power surrounded himself with the best and the brightest, and sought, as a matter of intellectual conviction, to direct Canadian policy on a planned and “functionalist” (rational) basis. The most egregious of the many planning failures to hobble the Trudeau government was the National Energy Program of 1980, which institutionalized a highly contentious long-term strategy for Canada’s energy needs based on the erroneous assumption that the 1970s energy crisis would persist indefinitely. Not long after the NEP had become federal policy, the transformed energy landscape of the 1980s rendered it obsolete—but not before the political fallout sundered the Liberal party, and arguably the country itself, along regional lines. Other failed planning exercises from the Trudeau era include Foreign Policy for Canadians, the “Third Option” on international trade and the now-infamous White Paper on indigenous peoples.

The second reason to reject the idea of a ten-year plan is that, even when a political consensus can be achieved on a pressing national priority, there’s nothing to say that the desired outcome is achievable. Take Campaign 2000, for example, Canada’s national strategy to eliminate child poverty. This noble initiative originated with a unanimous vote in the House of Commons in 1989. Yet, according to the most recent census data, 17.4% Canadian kids today live in poverty—compared with 16% in 1989. Over thirty years the reduction of child poverty has proved an intractable political challenge in Canada, as it has elsewhere, and not one that has been amenable to even the most altruistic and visionary planning exercises.

The third and most important reason a ten-year plan for Canada is a bad idea is perhaps the most obvious. Such state planning is inherently authoritarian—as the USSR demonstrated with its 1928 five-year plan, which so impressed the NSDAP that it followed with its own four-year plan under Goering’s direction in 1936.

Mr. Studin urges Canadians to “dream, strategize and competently implement major undertakings well beyond the limits of short electoral cycles.” He’d like PM Justin Trudeau to tell us “where we are going over the next 10 to 20 years,” whetting “the national appetite,” expanding “the imagination of the citizenry,” and making “our young people dream about the country’s future.” But what Studin would really like to see is “a national consensus-making push.” He believes that every major political party should be required to have “full-time, professional, expert, well-paid staff, in large numbers, who plan for the country’s long term—with the aim of implementing long-term plans when their parties come to power.” He also wants the “federal-provincial-territorial system of national planning” to be “expanded, professionalized and made permanent”—perhaps along the lines of the Council of Australian Governments, which Studin describes as “a very large scaffolding of intergovernmental committees across the country, often including business and nongovernmental actors.”

In the end, Mr. Studin’s dream of a vast, permanent and un-elected mandarin class shaping the dreams of Canadians sounds very much indeed like communist China today.

The reason why long-term planning is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes—and why so few democracies follow suit—is well known to Canadians. Planning in politics is the opposite of pragmatism, contingency, experimentation, revision and, above all, dissent. If a consensus around planning cannot be manufactured, it can always be coerced. This puts planning fundamentally at odds with modern democratic principles, which are grounded in the dictum that if citizens do not like the proposed plans of one leader or party (i.e., per Studin, within “the limits of short electoral cycles”) they can vote the bums out.

Here’s what Canadians—citizens of one of the world’s most advanced and enviable democracies—would have their elected officials and bureaucrats do instead. Rather than expanding the country’s planning apparatus along undemocratic, statist and ultimately authoritarian lines, reduce it. No one can know the future beyond the short term. More importantly, “dreaming about the country’s future” is not Canadians’ main concern and never has been. What Canadians dream about are their own futures, and the futures of their children. They expect governments to underwrite their aspirations with policies that enhance their security and prosperity, increase rather than diminish personal choice, allow for dissent—and, above all, extend these prerogatives to all other Canadians, on an equal basis and without coercion.

We do not need a vast state bureaucracy to come up with a ten-year plan for us, and we do not need our PM to tell us what the future holds. We can plan for ourselves.