Monday, June 19, 2006

Dangerous View of Federalism

The Ottawa Citizen has a long piece, detailing Canada West Foundation's President Roger Gibbins outline for a new federalism. If Canada were to enact all of Gibbins suggestions, the term federalism would essentially be a nice term to marry virtually independent states. Some of the highlights:
The boldest element of Mr. Gibbins' proposed national policy is a realignment of responsibility for health care and post-secondary education...

Hence health care delivery -- its standards, forms of delivery and funding levels -- should be primarily a matter of local preference. That would also allow more innovation in methods of health care delivery, an added benefit.

Post-secondary education is a different matter. College and university graduates are highly mobile. And the skills they possess are fundamental to national economic success. "Here, then, the logic of federalism suggests greater federal responsibility for post-secondary education."

Gibbins proposes that the federal government turn over its funding for health care, and in exchange assume a greater responsibility for post-secondary education. On the surface, and as Gibbins argues, this sounds like a simple shifting of priorities that equalizes any change in balance of powers. However, Gibbins argues that the federal government shouldn't have any real power over education standards, but simply supply the funding for students, while the decision makings remains local. Translation, the feds do nothing except cut a bigger check. This philosophy of the federal government as simply a bank it a common thread in Gibbins view of federalism.

On the health care front, the federal government relinquishes national standards, because as Gibbins argues:
"We put far too much emphasis on the role that national standards play in knitting us together,"

Allowing more "innovation in methods of health care delivery" is simply code for legitimizing rouge provinces who want nothing to do with the Canada Health Act (i.e Klein). Gibbins cavalier dismissal of national standards demonstrates a narrow regionalist perspective at its best. There must be areas where a symmetry exists so that a nation develops with a uniformity. Gibbins view guarantees a future with massive disparities that isolate regions from one another.

Gibbins goes on to argue that the federal government has no role in childcare or urban development, but allows for a role in infastructure, again simply as an entity that funds development:
"There is room for a literally more constructive federal role in building the transportation infrastructure and corridors that connect the Canadian economy to continental and global markets"

I suspect Gibbins offers new federal areas of influence to counter-act the other obvious signs of de-centralization, but unfortunately he never quite gets around to moving real power, unless of course it goes to the provinces. Again on immigration, the surface acknowledgement of federal relevance is simply a front to move money:
There's also a "clear, essential and continuing role" for the federal government in recruiting, settling and training new Canadians, he says. But federal officials should be indifferent to where they live.

"To be blunt, if recent immigrants leave Quebec for better economic opportunities out West, their federal funding should also move. To shape national immigration policies and funding to fit the geopolitics of a past era is a recipe for failure in the 21st century."

Nothing new, except where the money ends up. Hardly surprising that Gibbins opinion has a decidedly western slant.

The real surprising proposal that Gibbins makes is a call for a national energy plan:
Mr. Gibbins thinks the federal government has a crucial role to play in orchestrating and calibrating a national energy strategy.

"We are becoming an energy player on the global stage. That's going to increase. It would be very strange not to have some kind of national policy recognition of the potential that's there."

Surely, Gibbins makes a major concession to federalism in allowing for talk of this taboo. Not so fast:
The West has less to fear than it once did from federal involvement in such a strategy, he argues, in part because NAFTA acts as a kind of insurance policy against a renewal of the approach taken by the much-despised National Energy Program.

And the real kicker:
"Washington would come to the aid of Alberta if there was any threat of a new NEP," Mr. Gibbins says.

That's right, nothing says a strong Canada like American influence over national resources. A federal state is never undermined when a province approaches another country to intervene against its own national government. Gibbins entire proposal for a national energy plan is a toothless joke that accomplishes nothing. In fact, as a whole, I read Gibbins as adopting the "firewall" approach to federalism, with some symbolic overtures to appear balanced. Bottomline, if Gibbins view of federalism where to take hold, the national government would simply be a tax collecting entity that wrote checks to provinces. The piece is titled "The Future of Federalism", but an more apt title, given Gibbins views would be "What Future?".


CuriosityKilledTheCat said...

One Gobbons wrote eloquently about the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.
This Gibbons is writing – in a way dear to Stephen Harper's heart – about the planned fall of the Canadian federation.

His advocacy of a shift in power to the provinces is a policy of erecting firewalls around each province. Harper is the father of the firewall constitutional development in Canada.

What lies behind the firewall policy? I give you a few thoughts of my own; add to them if you wish. If Alberta is firewalled, then:

• Albertans need not be concerned about any of the folks who – as Harper so clearly set out – vote for Liberals in the west and east of the country.

• minorities can be disregarded – including minorities who vote for other parties; as long as the first past the post system is used, Liberal and NDP votes in the west are made worthless.

• equalization payments can be whittled down until no money flows to the folks out east. They will just have to work harder.

• who will have to give a hoot about the French from Quebec? Let them eat cake, in their own firewalled province ...

• it will one day be easier to have a province hive itself off and attach itself to the USA.

Let's hope that the next Liberal Party leader has the gumption to challenge Harper and his merry band of firewallers on their agenda of deconfederation.

Steve V said...

"Let's hope that the next Liberal Party leader has the gumption to challenge Harper and his merry band of firewallers on their agenda of deconfederation."

Good points!

This issue and the environment should be the cornerstones of the next election. Someone desperately needs to expose Harper's true view of federalism with a discussion about application. I don't suspect Harper will make the constitution an issue the next campaign, nor will he do much to raise hackles, but that doesn't mean the next mandate will be placid. The stakes are high, Harper will implement the "firewall" strategy when he has the political numbers to make his mark.

Ti-Guy said...

The article was too dreary to read in its entirety but one thing always strikes me with these radical visionaries who propose to re-think Canada...who exactly are they speaking for? Are their arguments based on a good understanding of the will and aspirations of the people (determined through proper surveying and consultation), or only on what they (and their cronies) personally think Canada should be like?

I always get the impression first and foremost, that they're arguing an inescapable reality that we should just resign ourselves to, rather than muck about with petty things like participatory democracy to determine the fate of our country. I wonder how Gibbons would respond to a charge of being profoundly undemocratic?

And that remark about Washington coming to the aid of Alberta. Absolutely absurd. Maybe Gibbons is in full dotage?

Steve V said...


"who exactly are they speaking for?"

It would be interesting if a reporter asked Harper what he thought of Gibbins ideas. I suspect that this is exactly how Harper views federalism, given these opinions come from "headquarters".