Policy-making in Ottawa is like a huge river, moving in a slow stately procession, and only occasionally providing excitement if you hit some rapids. It’s not like Washington, which – for all its vaunted “gridlock” – is actually more like an ice jam: there is a lot of pressure in the system, and things can move pretty quickly if the jam breaks somewhere. Partly it’s because of our Westminster system, and our tradition of party discipline: there are not many independent policy actors on the hill, and hence, not many points where interest groups can exert leverage. Add to that a relative lack of genuinely independent intellectual life in Ottawa (government and interest groups are dominated by policy analysts – Canada has no real equivalent to the Brookings Institute, or even the New America Foundation), and what you’ve got is a shop that doesn’t absorb new ideas easily.
All of which is to say that changes of government represent one of the very few times where new ideas get a hearing. And while it’s far from assured, there’s a significant chance that there will be a new government on, or shortly after, October 19th – the Tories haven’t seen a poll putting them in majority territory in years, and it seems unlikely that either opposition party will keep them in power, either with votes or abstentions. So October 20th is going to be the crucial date for policy entrepreneurs.
A new government comes to power with only a limited idea of what it’s going to do. Party platforms don’t come close to covering all areas of government activity, so new ministers are winging it on most files. Most post-secondary files come under the “winging it” category: apart from a Tory promise on tax breaks for apprenticeships, and a Liberal promise for more money for Aboriginal students, there’s been nada in the platforms so far, and as I said back here, that’s probably not going to change. Also, if there is a change of government, the new cabinet will be pretty raw: apart from Mulcair, there’s no one on the NDP front bench who’s ever held a cabinet seat at either a federal or provincial level; among Liberals, there are a dozen or so who have the “Honorable” prefix, but only Ralph Goodale, Stephane Dion, and John McCallum had substantial portfolios for any period of time. Whether a new cabinet is red or orange, or a combination of the two, it’s actually going to be pretty green (but not Green).
Now, if you’re in the business of selling policy ideas, green cabinets are the best kind. They have little allegiance to the status quo, are interested in new ideas, and cynicism hasn’t yet set in: they will never be more open to new ideas than they are at the start of a new government. But – and this is the important bit – they have to be new ideas. New governments may want to replace old policies, but they won’t do it by re-adopting even older ones. There has to be an element of progress involved.
In higher education, there aren’t a whole lot of areas where the Harper government agenda needs to be re-wound. On student aid and transfers, frankly, they’ve done little that opposition parties wouldn’t have done themselves. Internationalization has been a disappointment, but it’s small ball from a government perspective. Where a big re-think is needed is on research. Dollars are getting scarcer, and while a greater focus on applied research has had some successes (particularly the bits involving polytechnics), the degree of de-emphasis on basic research, and the obsession with knowledge translation, is becoming alarming.
Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be anyone out there proposing solutions that go beyond: “bring back the status quo ante”. That’s a problem, because no matter how much everyone liked the status quo ante, that approach doesn’t excite new ministers. If the sector wants a new approach that will attract big interest and big dollars, it has to come up with something genuinely new.
October 20th is fast approaching. And this kind of window rarely opens twice. Time to get cracking on some new approaches.
(corrected from the original and the version that went out via email to reflect the fact that the election is on the 19th, not the 18th. That was a bad goof on my part – sorry)