Public policy and the common good: Trudeau community in Alberta

The Trudeau Foundation is holding its annual public policy conference in Edmonton this year. The topic is the common good, attendance is free (with registration) and the line up looks quite good: sitting MPs (including Elizabeth May), leading figures in Canadian politics (Stephane Dion, Preston Manning and Michael Ignatieff among others) plus the usual slew of high-calibre academics. The conference will cover topics from global environmental negotiations to free trade to urban policy. Should be good – description below. More details here.

The Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation’s 9th Annual Conference on Public Policy
The Westin Hotel, Edmonton, Alberta, 22-24 November 2012

In defining the common good, the initial version of Canada’s Constitution Act wrote of “peace, order, and good government.” While these objectives should not be taken lightly, there is every reason to believe that most Canadians subscribe to a broader interpretation of the common good, especially at the abstract level. When it comes time to give precise meaning and render tangible notions such as “good government” and “peace,” however, thorny and sometimes bitter disputes often arise.

Who decides? Who chooses what the words actually mean? Who determines what is to be done next, so that principles may come to life in institutions and policies? In mature democracies, it was long thought that an elected parliament, a responsible government, and an independent judiciary were sufficient for the public interest to triumph. In the aftermath of recent controversies involving the economy, the environment, and human rights, however, the spirit of compromise that once characterized democratic life seems to have given way to increasingly entrenched ideological positions that are no longer confined to the fringe. Calls for civil disobedience are increasingly heard among the most “ordinary” of citizens, who claim that political and social decisions overwhelmingly benefit a privileged few: the now-famous “1%.” At the other end of the spectrum, those economic and social entities that are the best established – and that are, by consequence, privileged by institutions – are demanding that their activities be exempt from obligations of transparency and civic responsibility. Meanwhile, even in countries that are deeply affected by economic crises, and which should be cognizant of the limits of markets, governments willingly abandon the resolution of social problems to the private sector, as if public authorities cannot be trusted to make choices for the public good.

This polarization in attitudes affects no sector of social life more than the environment and the exploitation of natural resources. But the contagion is spreading to all sectors: from education to foreign policy, culture, and taxation. The great transformations to which Canada is exposed today – transformations that are pushing the country to review its position in the world and to rethink the foundations of its identity – are undermining the cohesion of its social and political structures. It is increasingly obvious that the balance of values has become precarious and that Canadians are struggling to rally around a common goal.

The ninth Trudeau Conference on Public Policy will give participants the opportunity to reflect deeply on these issues. Participants will explore systematically the conditions under which a pluralist and democratic society arrives at a generally acceptable definition of the common good and agrees on ways to implement that definition in a practical sense.