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External Advisory Committee on Smart Regulation (EACSR)

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Defining the Public Interest

Public opinion research tells us that Canadian values and attitudes, and Canadians' notions of individual and institutional accountability, have changed over the past decade.  Among the factors that have been cited are globalization, the social and cultural impacts of the knowledge economy, emerging environmental and health risks and fast-paced developments in technology and scientific knowledge. Indeed, in recent years, the internet has begun to empower Canadian consumers, providing them with up-to-the-minute information on new products, services and amenities, some of which may not yet be available commercially in Canada.

These changes mean new opportunities and challenges for Canada as a trading nation committed to offering a high quality of life to its citizens.

The 'public interest' is at the heart of all public policy including regulation in Canada. Not surprisingly, the EACSR has identified the clarification and/or modernization of what is meant by Canadian 'public interest' in the 21st century as fundamental to the development of a new 'smart regulation' strategy. However, this concept is an extremely elusive one to define. What exactly is the public interest, and will it mean the same thing tomorrow as it does today? Should regulations be designed to serve today's public interest or those of future generations? What criteria are used to define the 'public interest'? Are these criteria constant, or do they need to be flexible, depending on the issue or circumstances at hand? How is the trade-off made between, say, more jobs in a particular field and a cleaner environment? What happens if a majority of Canadians express concern over the perceived safety of a particular product or process that hard scientific evidence concludes is ill-placed? What if they object to a product or process or policy on ethical grounds?

Another important issue is who defines the 'public interest' and whether that has changed over time. Elected officials ultimately provide leadership in terms of defining and articulating the shared values of Canadians and in ensuring they are faithfully expressed in legislation and public policy.  Advocacy groups , industry and business and professional associations have also played an important role, sometimes making their cases directly to elected officials but, increasingly, making them to Canadians themselves.

Areas for discussion:

What is the role for the citizen in defining public interest?

Do you agree that the Canadian public interest has changed over time, given more open markets and rapid advancements in science and technology? If so, how?

What elements of the public interest should be taken into account in designing regulations? In what ways can public policy objectives and regulatory frameworks be better defined to serve 'the public good'?

Compared to the period prior to the 1990s, do you think Canadians are more or less risk averse?

From a 21st century perspective, what are the roles and responsibilities of government with respect to regulation? Of industry? Of citizens? Of consumers?


Background Material

The EACSR has commissioned a number of external advisory opinions and papers that will be made available through this web site for public review and comment. All such opinions remain those of the individual authors and do not reflect the position of the Government of Canada.

Last Modified:  9/22/2004

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