Since the May election, we've heard plenty of speculation on how the various parties might change over the next four years. Can the Liberals rebuild, and into what -- the Liberal Party of 1968? Will the NDP morph into a bilingual social-democratic party with its centre of gravity in Quebec? Will the Conservatives take their 40 per cent "majority" to the centre, or swing sharply to the right?
It really doesn't matter. All parties in modern democracies operate from one unquestioned but fatal premise: everything's going to stay the same. Politics is all about who gets how a big a slice of the status-quo pie.
If something unusual happens, like a hurricane or a major earthquake, the party in power will come up with some ad hoc response that will get it through to the next election without losing too many votes. Then we can all go back to fighting over the pie.
Public pressure for long-term disaster planning is almost nonexistent. Many of us don't even plan for our own retirement, let alone worry about our country's future.
That's why we continue to ignore climate change; it hasn't really hurt us yet. Never mind the spread of tropical diseases like malaria and cholera, or even our own home-grown obesity and diabetes, which probably won't kill us this month. When our wild sockeye vanish, supermarkets will still offer us some kind of mystery fish. The status quo will remain.
But a lot of us also like to think about our great-grandchildren, and how to ensure that they live peaceful, happy and productive lives.
Suppose a few patient people formed a Foresight Party. They would offer the same message your accountant would give you: you can't blow your paycheque on payday night. What's more, you need to save a big chunk of it for future emergencies.
Planning for the lean years
Because most voters focus on the short term, most politicians see no point in long-term policies. A successful five- or 10-year project will only make the next government look good. Twenty years? Fifty? Forget it. Who can look that far ahead? What politicians are thinking seriously about their own descendants in, say, 2060?
Actually, we can foresee a lot about 2060. The U.N., for example, says Canada will have 45 million people, with almost a third of us aged 60 or older. We can foresee at least some of the effects of climate change.
We know it's also likely we'll suffer a major subduction quake off the coast of Vancouver Island, causing damage in the scores of billions of dollars. And we may well see a monster solar flare like the 1859 Carrington event; such a flare today could wreck our whole electronic communications network.
The purpose of the Foresight Party would be to anticipate the country's next half-century or more, based on known facts and reasonable extrapolation. Like Joseph warning Pharaoh about seven years of famine following seven prosperous years, the party would set policies to help the country enhance its successes and minimize its disasters.
It would cost out those policies; for example, if we need young immigrants to help pay for the costs of caring for our elderly, we should also plan to spend on programs to help those immigrants to integrate quickly and become productive citizens. If we need skilled engineers to design quakeproof buildings and robust electronic communications, we'll pay their tuition and hire them straight out of grad school.
The U.S. military spent a fortune for 30 years on making computer technology cheap and small enough to become a viable private-sector industry. Similarly, the Foresight Party would invest heavily in research and development that would make green solutions too cheap to pass up -- whether for consumers or for businesses.
U.S. economist Paul Krugman has called government "an insurance company with an army." (And the army itself is another form of insurance against future disasters.) Just as we insure for "catastrophic" medical contingencies, the Foresight Party would maintain a major-disaster fund. Some of the interest it earns would support mitigation programs like seismic upgrading and improving hospital cleanliness. Then, when the Big One hits or an epidemic breaks out, the government of the day will have less need to borrow -- or to improvise its response.
A gift to ourselves
The corporate world may object to the taxes it has to pay, but most successful businesses operate with long-term plans based on cost/benefit analysis. The Foresight Party will argue that its policies amount to a huge future gift for those businesses, just as we send ourselves a gift by saving for our retirement.
Of course the Foresight Party's message won't be a welcome one. No one likes to think about unpleasant events. But we saw that Japan coped with its earthquake and tsunami thanks to foresight and training; it should have had even more foresight about the siting of its nuclear reactors.
Ideally, all our present parties would adopt a Foresight platform. They could then battle over which policies would get us into the 22nd century without suffering an avoidable catastrophe.
But if they continue to squabble like kids over who got the bigger slice of the pie, something like a Foresight Party will have to offer adult supervision during some predictably difficult times.
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