Why is it so difficult for politicians to distinguish between activity and action?
Too many people mistake activity (running on the spot) for action (running towards the target). Politicians, for reasons of expediency, have never been bothered by the distinction. During the past few weeks we have several examples of “ready, fire, aim”, at the federal, provincial and municipal levels.
Earlier this week, the federal government announced some significant changes to its climate-change policy, in particular the carbon tax elements. More than a year ago, it announced, to great fanfare, a key element of its climate change policy. It advised the provinces that if they did not invoke some form of carbon tax or, in the case of Ontario and Quebec, a cap-and-trade policy, then a federal levy would be put in place. Despite repeated questions about how much this policy would cost industries and consumers, no details were forthcoming. Was this because they knew what the expected costs would be, but choose not to disclose the amounts to avoid negative news, or because they haven’t a clue?
Now that the implementation date of its carbon-tax policy is on the horizon, the federal government has decided to change the rules as it applies to businesses that compete on the international stage, to ensure that the policy does not impact those businesses’ ability to win contracts, and by extension continue to employ Canadians in their factories. In short, in an effort to present the illusion that it was serious in taking steps to achieve its much touted Paris Accord climate change goals, the federal government willfully decided to mislead the public with an activity (implementing a policy that it knows is flawed) for action (implementing a policy that might actually work).
During this past week-and-a-half, the provincial government decided to cut the number of council seats in Toronto by almost half. Time was of the essence, at least it was for the provincial government. Studies, evaluations, consultations? Those sorts of things only get in the way of taking action, so Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet decided on “activity”. Had they taken the time to do things in the right order, well the existing democratic process would have taken place in the normal course and the sense of urgency that the government manufactured would no longer have been the overriding criteria.
Next the local government in Ottawa. The Holland Avenue bike lanes is a classic case of someone trying to create the illusion of action by substituting activity. With the closure of the Harmer Avenue pedestrian bridge over Highway 417, the city needed to address the resultant change in bicycle and pedestrian traffic patterns, most notable of which involves school age children. Staff presented a solution that removed about 100 parking spaces for the two-year construction period, and using that space as bike lanes. Area residents objected. Were they consulted before the proposed bike lane solution? If so, did their comments make it any further than the recycle bin or the deleted items folder? Who know? City staff may know, but the people don’t.
In any event, the area residents presented the mayor and councillor with a petition with about 100 signatures on it, and immediately, without further ado, an edict came from on high to change the proposed solution to a hybrid that introduced much higher risks to the cyclists and pedestrians, but satisfied the local homeowners. Was there any meaningful study before Mayor Jim Watson implemented his activity? Meaningful as it relates to safety and traffic flow, not meaningful as in votes were at risk in the upcoming municipal election. Again, we have no idea. The mayor then received a petition with more than 700 signatures on it demanding a safer solution. Out of nowhere, a variant of the initial plan has been put into place, with the only meaningful variable being the number of parking spaces that will be “temporarily” removed.
What do all of these examples have in common? First and foremost is that they were implemented by politicians who needed to look like they were solving a time-sensitive crisis.
The federal government needed to show that it was serious about climate change. A number of their high-profile election promises had suffered the indignity of study, evaluation and consultation.
The provincial government needed to make changes to the make up of Toronto City Council immediately, otherwise another four years of an existing democratic process, no matter how dysfunctional it might or might not have been, could actually happened as planned. Better to act now and think about the consequences later.
As for the Holland Avenue bike-lane conundrum, well, there is an election in four months, and the mayor does like to present himself as a man who makes things happen. So, aside from wasting some money on green and white paint, Watson can now show both sides of the conflict that he is, indeed, a person who is incapable of distinguishing between activity and action.
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.
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