John Duffy studies #2: Why You Can’t Build Anything in Canada Anymore

  • You can’t build big infrastructure like pipelines in Canada anymore.
  • It’s hard to get clear outcomes out of our federal-provincial system.
  • Canadians are allergic to politics, they don’t want decision makers to make decisions because they don’t trust them and they don’t believe in them.
  • We’re transitioning out of a Westminster-style cabinet government.
  • There’s centripetal force at the governance level like in the 1970’s.
  • Example: health data portability, data can’t travel easily across the country because there’s a complex set of rules and control is in the hands of regulators that aren’t accountable to the elected government, they’re accountable like a “watchdog” to parliament (more like ombudsman and auditors general) meaning voters have no control over them and politicians don’t want to take them on because these regulators are seen as above politics.
  • Something has gone wrong when watchdogs are regulating “markets that have value” like the movement of health data and the reason is we don’t like politicians.
  • The cry is “gotta take the politics out”, this is case in transit politics in southern Ontario for ex.
  • If you take this logic far enough it starts to look like Singapore or China (ie. rule by people that are technically skilled and unaccountable).
  • It has become harder for the democratic will of the people to be translated into government action.
  • Thinks feds are doing more to get commercializable R&D for Canadian companies, you can feel a greater emphasis on digital/data sovereignty (disagrees with Balsillie).
  • Trudeau has reduced poverty. Should get more credit.
  • The problem: huge challenges like “galloping requirements”, climate change catastrophe, the rise of AI and simultaneously we are hamstringing our governments.
  • Watchdogs, suspicion of politicians, alienation from political life are all creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where voters feel that the big issues that are shaping our world are out of control and by witholding their participation they are ensuring these changes will be out of control to the point “people won’t be able to shape their own lives, it’s an unfolding tragedy”.
  • Canada is not like Portugal or the Netherlands because needs are consistent in those countries.
  • Canada is a funny country to try and be progressive in because you have progressive urbanites sitting on top of an economy that doesn’t look very progressive (until you look at the extent of technology used in resource sectors).
  • Politicians arent trusted enough to broker anymore, brokerage politics used to be a Canadian ideal/trait.
  • Despite the Republicans overwhelming power in 2019 (state houses, congress, presidency, judges) they couldn’t really govern (for ex. they failed to undo Obamacare).
  • There’s a problem in terms of creating democratic consensus for moving things forward as global dynamics are pulling societies apart. Deligitimizing politicans is a part of the prob and we have to relegitimize them.


  • MHF: it’s “almost impossible to build anything”, politicians have been unwilling to lead, the less politicians lead the less trust they get. Example: Christy Clark’s pipeline conditions (she had no right, its unconstitutional), similar situation with Legault and Energy East.
  • There is no longer consistency from government to government.
  • SS: politics have become transactional and small.
  • SS: there’s been skills based change, more rewards for cognitive skills.
  • Balsillie: Trudeau govt. has not done innovation, its done cheap labour foreign owned tech branch plants.

The public policy phantasmagoria: which way reforming man?

There are two completely incompatible refrains to be heard at the nexus of politics and policy. The first voice warns “we need to go slow, account for ‘legitimate grievances,’ address the needs of the people ‘left behind'” etc. Ad nauseum.

The second voice says something like “we need to change many things fast, everything is changing anyway, the minority who object are shrieking irrelevance, there’s a new paradigm” etc. Ad nauseum.

To some extent these incompatible positions represent a divide in the establishment center of politics. To a lesser extent, the second group wants to see the end of popular democracy and the adoption of more technocratic governance.

The second voice will get more of its way than the first because the first voice has little connection to politics and social life. Almost all the people -most particularly left/liberal academics and commentators- who drone about “legitimate grievances” have no link of any sort to the people legitimately aggrieved.

Some part of the ruling class is behind the first voice but the second voice is a near consensus position at the top. For that reason, second voice reforms will go forward and the grievances at issue will probably only get more legitimate. When does a grievance get so legitimate that it actually matters? That’s a trick question.