Maple Leaf and Multiculturalism
from the Hungarian On-line service www.hirextra.hu 14.01.2008
English translation of the interview with Pierre Guimond, Canada’s Ambassador to Hungary, about reforms, multi-culturalism and the relations between Canada and Hungary; about what is expected to happen with the visa requirement, how an external observer sees the political life of Hungary and what changes our admission to the European Union is expected to bring about.
You have been Canada’s Ambassador to Hungary since the fall of 2007. What was your first impression about Hungary?
Very good. The first time I visited Hungary was in 1990. What I can remember is that in those days it was rather a mixed atmosphere. It was fascinating and sad at the same time. I remember the beautiful Parliament building beside the houses that badly needed fixing as the walls were crumbling and the paints peeling off. When I came back years later, it was completely different. The infrastructure had considerably improved. Today one can see wonderful buildings all fixed up that attract tourists’ eyes everywhere. However, after living here three months, I no longer count as a tourist and I have discovered that the picture is a lot more complex with a rather complicated political and economic situation. I must admit that this was not exactly what I expected.
In what way were your expectations different? What is it that surprised you in Hungary?
I expected more willingness to compromise. What is happening with regard to the economic reform, for example, is very interesting for a foreign observer. The reforms initiated by the government are extremely important: these are measures that we also had to take in Canada a few years ago. Of course, the starting point was completely different in Canada (both in historical and political terms). Nevertheless, the conclusion turned out to be quite similar.
The centre-left-wing government (there are no real left and right wings in Canada, there are two big parties: the liberal party, which is more like a left-wing party, and a more conservative party, which is more like a right-wing party, but they both stand more or less in the centre) has recognized that it must not squander the inheritance of Canadian children but it has to do something. The measures taken aimed at freeing the state of some of its duties, so it has been relieved of a number of functions. They have set up self-financing agencies to perform the functions passed on. These agencies were granted a substantial sum by the state upon start-up just like kids are when they leave home.
The differences of opinion between the political parties lied in the methods of changes, whereas the goal was common. There was political consensus, probably also due to the message that came not only from the government but also from experts saying that the state must not have such a high amount of debts. The measures did not cause a big social shock.
In Canada, we could achieve the goal to simplify the economy and today there is already some surplus in our budget. As the Prime Minister pointed out, it is much more difficult to spend the surplus. When there are constraints, we take away a little from everyone, which is equally bad for everyone. However, when there is a surplus to be distributed, everyone would like to get a share, which makes people more frustrated and it is more difficult to make a just decision. To sum up, we also had a debate about the economic reform about ten years ago.
In Hungary, the number of government officials and their relative efficiency surprised me. Since I came here, I have had a number of conversations with different people who support the government and I told them how we tried to solve similar problems in Canada.
In addition, there are really tough political debates in Hungary, there is no consensus in terms of goals, i.e. where they want the country to head for. These were my first observations.
You arrived to Hungary when a rough ride was ahead for the country.
Yes, this is true, although it must have been rougher during the commemoration of the 1956 revolution in 2006. The Canadians were really surprised to see what was broadcast in the media at that time, which is unlikely to be a hundred percent accurate, since if we see a car on fire on the pictures, it does not mean there is one on fire on every street corner. There is a fairly large community with Hungarian origins in Canada (about 300 000 people), some of whom are descendants of those who participated in the revolution. I do not wish to comment on the disputes between parties, I believe it is the business of the Hungarian people to settle this problem.
I think everybody would agree that reforms are needed in the economy and the structure of the state. There are permanent problems, we also have some issues in health care, for instance, which need to be resolved.
What is the Canadian system like?
The Health Insurance Plan in Canada falls within the competence of the federal states. Every federal state has their own system, which is financed from local taxes.
Experts say that our system is more economical and efficient than that of the United States. The question has been raised whether to make the service a pay-service. It has been completely free with a few exceptions: for example, we have always had to pay for dental services.
Are there other issues as well?
There were two major debates in relation to this subject in Canada. The first one was the issue of reducing costs. It has been noticed that people who think that they are sick tend to “do some medical shopping”. They go to see a doctor and if they are not satisfied, they go to see another one and if they are still not satisfied, they go to the third one. All this for the same conclusion: “You are ill.” or “You are not ill.” or “You have this or that disease”. This was the first issue considering that if people have to pay a small sum when they go to see a doctor, they might not see a lot of doctors.
The second issue, which is applied by several federal states, is the problem of medicines. Medication used to be free for elderly citizens. It is still free, although there is a certain annual sum up to which the state finances the medication of the elderly and those who are very sick but above this limit it does not.
Another issue is whether to allow hospitalisation in such hospitals where everything has to be paid for in case of such operations that are not critical. In other words, what happens if someone decides not to wait until their turn arrives in an ordinary hospital but would like to go to a private clinic for money, of course? This is quite a topical issue now.
In Canada, we examine both the American and the European models and try to find the best compromise between the two, such a solution that probably works more effectively than in a few European countries and at the same time, people are not left without medical services if they have no money. Health care and education have always been two of the most important social issues. Debates are more or less the same everywhere.
What was the debate about in terms of education in Canada?
It was about tuition fees. I remember I was still a student when we were struggling with the same problem. Every year, we either went on strike or started a protestation campaign when the government wanted to raise tuition fees, etc. We still have tuition fees, which are fairly high, yet a lot lower than in the United States. Students have to take their studies seriously so that they can repay the tuition fees to the state from their salaries when they start working. However, there are also state and private scholarships to help them.
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