It's past time we started turning back the clock

My colleague Randall Denley wrote this weekend that if we consider municipal amalgamation in Ottawa a failure we should undo it. What a splendid heresy. Not his sentiment that the megacity is not working out as promised, which others have also noticed. In any case, he isn't ready to give up on it entirely. No, I single out for praise his remarkable assertion that if a piece of public policy proves to be a mistake we should undo it, and his even more startling underlying premise that we can.

Trivial, you say? OK, when is the last time a government introduced a measure, then admitted it was a mistake and simply repealed it? When, for that matter, is the last time a government admitted something its predecessor had done was a mistake and simply repealed it, even after campaigning on precisely such repeal?

When you suggest getting rid of some flagrant error, people are prone to chirp that you can't turn the clock back, a remarkable triple fatuity in just six words. In the first place, we turn the clock back every fall when we go off daylight savings time. In the second, we turn the clock back whenever we notice that it is fast (unless it is the technologically advanced clock on some modern convenience we can't operate). In the third, and most fundamentally, it incorporates the mistaken notion of society as engaged in desirable linear progress through a set of predictable homogenous stages. This 19th-century mechanistic vision of society, most famously expressed in Marx's schema of an inevitable primitive-slave-feudal-capitalist-socialist-communist progression, is itself so outdated that to espouse it is, ironically, to turn the clock back.

Despite its complete historical inaccuracy, this notion manages to confer an air of inevitability on various schemes with no other apparent virtues. For instance, municipal amalgamation, which I warned against before it happened (on Dec. 1, 1999 in this very newspaper). Unfortunately I argued on the basis of economic and political principles and everybody who was anybody knew the megacity was going to happen and you can't fight the clock.

Or something. How, for instance, would this tiresome clock metaphor categorize my own desire to strengthen federalism by dramatically increasing the number of provinces, essentially dividing existing ones up by telephone area code? I also think we have too few politicians and should double the size of both the federal Commons and our provincial legislatures, giving us far more legislators who either do not seek or do not anticipate ministerial office and the perks it brings, and devote themselves instead to making the legislature work as a check on the executive including by strengthening the committee system.

The latter suggestion is driven by a desire to return to past practice. But the mechanism I propose is unfamiliar in this country though the British House of Commons exceeds 600 members. However you could start by repealing the Harris Tories' fatuous "Fewer Politicians Act." Am I then an advocate of turning the clock sideways?

When I also say Parliament should, and could, repeal the 1982 Constitution Act, are we to conclude that I'm so reactionary I use a sundial not a clock, but want to turn it forward? And why do you never hear arguments about the operation of a clock when someone tries to force progress? Why did no one say when the Supreme Court bestowed gay marriage upon us that you can't turn the clock forward, so be patient?

We should turn this metaphor down, and with it any notion that every piece of policy innovation is like Jacques Parizeau's infamous lobster pot, into which once lured we have no hope of escape. You can remove the lid and sometimes you should.

A simple solution, and not only to our metaphorical difficulties, is to suggest we navigate with a compass rather than a timepiece. For instance, I can show you coherent and principled defences of the constitution of liberty going back not merely to the Federalist Papers or William Blackstone but to mid-12th century England. Yet where, in the debate over our Constitution Act of 1982, was there even a failed attempt at reasoning from first principles or long experience? At best you'd get one of those silly claims that Canada only works until you start trying to understand why. Mankind has seen no shortage of confused politicians over the ages but it is a rare and obnoxious innovation for them to make it a point of pride.

There is no need for us to join them, in our rhetoric or the ideas it expresses. We can undo our policy mistakes. I say let's start with ditching the megacity.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]