Sunday, March 26, 2006

If I Ran the Zoo

Here are some issues I think should be topping political agendas this year.

You might notice that health care isn't on the list. I think health care is always important, but I'm starting to think that the Canadian health care problems that started about 10 years ago were a temporary transition after the federal government changed the system of transfers to provinces. Health care is no longer in crisis, and the past crisis has better prepared us for future potential problems because the Supreme Court has ruled on the acceptable level of delays for treatment.

Pension Reform
Most private sector workers have no pension coverage at all, and those who do are discovering just how insecure the coverage is as companies declare bankruptcy or restructure in order to end their pension obligations. Currently, civil servants are the only people who have guaranteed pensions. The unfairness of this situation is even greater because civil servant pensions are financed by the taxes of people who do not have pensions. We are soon going to have a large underclass of impoverished elderly while one sector of society can take early retirement, have full benefits into their twilight years, and receive high levels of income.

There aren't nearly enough subsidized houses for the upcoming generation of seniors. There are less and less family structures in place to help. The location of food banks and social services often assume that people are hale and hearty and can take buses, walk up stairs, or carry home heavy boxes. As the first wave of baby boomers approach 60 we have a looming humanitarian disaster.

One solution would be to provide much higher government pension benefits, perhaps financed by cutbacks in benefits to civil servants. Some government pension benefits are already clawed back if there are other sources of income, and the claw-backs should be increased. Another possibility is to greatly increase low-income senior benefits such as dental care and housing.

A big problem with getting a debate started is that the people who should be working on the issue (politicians, the civil service and academics) are all guaranteed nice fat pensions and seem to not understand the issue and not care.

Education Reform
Some suggestions for change:

Our school year was designed for an agrarian society in which children were needed to help out on the farm. Nowadays most mothers work outside the home, and their work does not take a hiatus in July and August. Likewise, students need to learn a lot more now than they did a hundred-odd years ago when the school year was set. We need to consider dumping the current 180-day school year and moving to a 240-day, year-round school year (as Germany and Japan have).

In Ontario, a big slice of the budget goes to bussing kids to school. This seems like a wholly unnecessary expense that is caused, in part, by our relatively new system of dual school boards (regular and Catholic). This system separates schools from neighborhoods. Although a high proportion of the population is Catholic and this initiative received unanimous bipartisan support in the Ontario legislature, it's bad for students and for communities and should be reconsidered.

All students in universities and community colleges should have the option of cooperative education in which one-third of every year is a coop work term. This would enhance their studies, help them finance their educations, and prepare them for the work world.

Community Development
We need to reform our approach to urban planning. We all agree that global warming is a problem, and yet we continue with endless urban sprawl that makes public transit unaffordable. After years of attempts to re-invigorate our city centers we still build megamalls on the outside of town. In my town a few years ago, City Council even wanted to move the public library way out on the outskirts of town.

There are systemic reasons that municipal governments often don't provide proper urban planning. In Ontario, there's the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which is pro-developer and which can override local governments. Also, it seems that we don't have strong or smart enough city and regional councils; we need more involvement in and commitment to this level of government.

Environmental Regulation
Politicians have started talking about reducing oil consumption, and Canada has signed on to the Kyoto Accord, but we are doing hardly anything to actually improve our environmental record. Some major causes of pollution are: industry; cars; personal consumption. For industry, we need more regulations on polluting. For cars, we need higher gas prices and a hefty surcharge on new car sales based on gas consumption. For consumption, we need public awareness campaigns. We also need regulations on packaging; for example, why not insist that pop and wine bottles be refillable.

We need a clear, non-ideological understanding of the ramifications of the industrialization and growing economic strength of two countries comprising over 2.5 billion people. Our theories of free trade envisioned countries of roughly equal size; I don't support protectionism, but we need to re-examine our approach based on current realities.

We also need to address the issue of pollution in these growing states and the looming environmental disaster from millions of new factories and hundreds of millions of new cars that have no emission controls or other environmental regulation. Perhaps we can tie access to our markets to better environmental regulations.


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