Publications, opinions, and speeches


The singer and the song

Published on 24/11/2015

I have a number of favourite songs. I like Van Morrison singing Into the Mystic. And I like Frank Sinatra singing I’ve Got You Under My Skin. When Ella Fitzgerald sings Every Time We Say Goodbye, I marvel. There are other songs I love, and my playlists are a delight for me to listen to.

However, when I sing these songs, it somehow isn’t the same. In fact, not even close!

The song hasn’t changed, of course, but the singer has. I have come to the conclusion, reluctantly, that I’m no Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, or Van Morrison. Nor Drake, Gaga, or The Boss. When they sing, they imbue the song with vocal qualities that make it great. They give it tone.

I was reminded of this when I read the mandate letters our new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent to his cabinet ministers. Traditionally, Canadian prime ministers and premiers sent mandate letters to deputy ministers in government, instructing them as civil service heads of government departments on what they should do during the current term of government.

In recent years these mandate letters have gone to the ministers, as the political heads of departments. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne made her mandate letters public so that everyone could know what she wanted her government to do. And now Prime Minister Trudeau has done the same thing.

These mandate letters have two elements.

The body of the letter is a list of bullet points with specific instructions on where to concentrate efforts, most of which have been drawn from the platform the Liberal party campaigned on, and which they now want to implement as the government. In effect, they constitute the song the government wants to sing.

As far as Maytree is concerned, we like the song. In fact, they are tunes we’ve been humming for a while, along with our partners at Caledon, Tamarack, the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, and the Global Diversity Exchange:

  • A national poverty reduction strategy.
  • Support for caregivers.
  • Strengthening the Canada Child Tax Benefit (renamed the Canada Child Benefit) by rolling in the previous government’s inefficient tax credits, and enhancing the Canada Pension Plan, the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and Old Age Security, all of which will constitute a virtual basic income for Canadians. And, importantly, making the government be proactive in ensuring Canadians receive the supports to which they’re entitled.
  • Production of affordable housing stock.
  • Strengthening cities through support for transit, housing and other infrastructure.
  • The restoration of the long-form census and more support for Statistics Canada, returning the federal government to smart, evidence-based decision making.
  • Criminal justice reform, with a focus on bail and sentencing improvements.
  • Modernizing the regulatory environment for charities and non-profits, and recognition of their key role in public policy formation.

For us, these constitute lines in a song we want to listen too.

But will it have the right tone? Will the song be sung with the vocal qualities that make it great?

The mandate letters have another part which sets the tone. The Prime Minister in a lengthy preamble to each letter referred to “a new tone” using phrases like:

  • …committed to public investment
  • …informed by performance measurement, evidence, and feedback from Canadians
  • …a renewed sense of collaboration
  • …openness and transparency in government
  • …issues will arise or will be brought to our attention by Canadians, stakeholders, and the public service
  • …constructive dialogue with Canadians, civil society, and stakeholders, including business, organized labour, the broader public sector, and the not-for-profit and charitable sectors
  • …identifying ways to find solutions and avoid escalating conflicts unnecessarily
  • …inclusion, honesty, hard work, fiscal prudence, and generosity of spirit

If the substantive instructions to ministers constitute the song, these directives on tone are how the Prime Minister wants the song to be sung. And most Canadians are likely to find at least the singing to be a welcome change from previous governments.

There are of course discordant notes: the hard-worn and cynical voices in the national press warning against naivety and “honeymoon” periods; opposition parties looking for either points of attack or justification of electoral defeat (“we got the tone wrong”); or even voices resentful that “the kids” have taken over (as if the middle-aged people in the new government are kids).

I hope that the new song isn’t a “one hit wonder,” but rather a sustained performance that is as listenable at the end of the majority mandate as now.

I hope it is a song we all want on our playlist.


Civic engagement


What we see (and hear) in mandate letters sent by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to his cabinet ministers is a welcome change, but it will need to be sustained so this isn’t just a “one hit wonder.”