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How is Your Association Planning to Work With Mr. Martin’s Agenda?

By Scott Proudfoot

This article was written in December for the January/February issue of Association Director Magazine. Since then, the Liberals’ descent in the polls has made Canadian politics much more competitive.  Will Mr. Martin actually get to implement his agenda? We will leave that call to the voters where it belongs. But, in the meantime, we think Association Executives will want to closely examine Mr. Martin’s agenda to determine how it helps or hurts their interests. Here are some initial suggestions.

With the advent of Mr. Martin and his mostly new faces cabinet, Canada has undergone a regime change without actually changing the party in power.

The Martin Team has worked hard to build distance between their agenda and Mr. Chrétien’s. Considering their long intimate association, this spin is arguably crafted for public consumption and slightly disingenuous. But, there are elements of Mr. Martin’s agenda that are new and a clear reaction to many things he and his team disliked about the Chrétien governing sx. Always a bit of a policy wonk, Mr. Martin plans a policy driven agenda. He wants to do more than mind the store.

The issue for most associations will be: How do we work with Mr. Martin’s agenda? Or, if your objectives drive you in that direction, how do you work against it? 

We think you should make up your mind quickly.  Most new governments arrive with a stock of ideas that carries them through their first term. Often, the rush of unforeseen events throws them off track, (e.g., recessions, 9/11, SARS).  Inevitably, ministers get absorbed in the day-to-day business of governing and lose their initial fervor and focus. 

Young governments are interesting for what they want to do. Old governments are usually more interesting for how they survive.

Time will tell about the survival skills of Mr. Martin’s Liberals but for now, association executives should concentrate on what this new government wants to do should the electorate give them the chance. And it will be the policy directions and initiatives established in the first 18 to 24 months of office that reflect the real change they intend to bring.

Associations who jump in early on these priorities will have a greater impact. Those who contest the government’s initiatives have a harder row to hoe.  But, in either case, you would be advised to plan now instead of waiting until the government builds up a head of steam.

So what doors does Mr. Martin’s agenda open for Associations?

He has been paying lots of attention to cities.  There will be enhanced structures to facilitate communication, dialogue and participation by provinces and municipalities in federal decision-making. This will create new avenues that some association will need to access, depending on the issues.

Economic development focused on industrial clusters will be relevant to industry associations and unions. There will be more money to support municipal infrastructure, some coming from diverted gasoline taxes. This will set tourism, urban transportation and local and community associations in motion.

While Mr. Martin is cooling towards Kyoto, don’t confuse this with a lack of commitment to environmental issues. Environmental groups would be advised to adjust their advocacy to target these new infrastructure programs and other Martin initiatives to turn them ‘greener’. They should find a receptive audience.

Life long learning will be a high priority and Mr. Martin wants practical applications. That can mean working with business and labour to create new apprenticeship and training programs.  The plan to blow apart HRDC Canada raises questions about where sector councils (heavily association sponsored) fit. Immigrant resettlement along with foreign professionals accreditation will also be factored into this industry labour market agenda.

Mr. Martin also wants a new and enhanced security policy framework. Americans are tense and Mr. Chrétien has left a frayed relationship.  Sending strong signals on North American security is just common sense and good for our most important trading relationship. Security issues will continue to engage front line professional associations such as fireman, policemen and emergency workers, along with industry associations representing airports, ports and the trucking industry. All those business associations working the cross border trade issues since 9/11 can expect to be on call for years to come.

Beyond wanting a more cordial relationship with the Americans, Mr. Martin has sent few signals on trade. It would be unfortunate if residual animus derailed the continuation of Mr. Chrétien’s Team Canada initiative. Mr. Chrétien made a sustained commitment to selling Canada abroad and pushed his Ministers to do the same. The program was not well understood by the general public but experienced exporters and industry associations recognized the value it created for business for Canada.  It is not clear if our new Prime Minister will be as active a salesman.

But, Mr. Martin is clearly interested in the G20, multilateral global institutions and focusing on enhanced aid outcomes.  This agenda item will engage the aid related NGO community in Canada.

No Prime Minister can avoid the healthcare issue. Who pays, how much, to whom and for what will continue to drive public debate. Health related associations will have to jump in to ensure their members’ priorities stay on the table.

Since the Indian Act legislation was shelved, Mr. Martin has effectively guaranteed another round of hearings and lobbying from Aboriginal associations on the shape of a new bill.

Beyond the usual ‘feel your pain’ platitudes, Mr. Martin has paid less attention to some other areas. Topics of lesser priority include Agriculture, Natural Resources, Fisheries, and Culture. Associations working these beats may find less to work with in the new agenda.

And while there may be targeted tinkering with the tax code in support of new initiatives, groups wanting to see major cuts in personal or corporate taxes will be disappointed. Mr. Martin cut most of the taxes he intended to while Finance Minister.  A strong economic recovery and rapidly rising surpluses will be required to propel a major tax cutting initiative back on the government’s agenda.

Some Martin priorities will affect a large number of associations in diverse ways.

Given the current fiscal environment with little surplus or revenue increases, money for new priorities will need to be captured through an on-going program review process. There will have to be spending cuts in most departments to fund these new priorities. Many associations will find these spending cuts directly or indirectly affect their membership. Others may see it as an opportunity to get rid of programs they don’t like.

Mr. Martin’s ‘Democratic Deficit’ agenda requires an enhanced role and influence for Parliament and Parliamentarians. Committee chairs will be elected by the committees themselves; there will be more free votes; more private members bills will see their way to legislation; MPs and committees will increasingly be the lead on important consultations; and committees will have larger budgets and will use new technology to engage the public. MPs will be expected to represent regional interests in a more aggressive fashion. Parliamentary Secretaries to Ministers will have more overt and delegated influence and power.

Plus, there will be wholesale changing of the guard at the Ministerial and staff level and a change of portfolios for Ministers that do change. The pre-election and post-election cabinet may be different. Star candidates elected in the 2004 election may appear in the post-election cabinet.

This means Association Executives will have to get to know a new larger group of political players. There will be more levers in Parliament to shape the direction of public policy and more ways to promote or oppose legislation. Both the politicians and interest groups will be feeling their way along as they try to maximize their profile and influence within these new rules.

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