Saturday, November 25, 2006

Harper Prepares To Launch "Firewall" Federalism

Premier Harper tips the balance of power:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is poised to play a second national unity card by limiting federal spending powers in exclusive areas of provincial jurisdiction, CTV News has learned.

One option to achieve this goal is a constitutional amendment that would require the support of seven provinces comprising 50 per cent of the population, insiders say.

Talks are underway with key provincial governments, including Quebec Premier Jean Charest.

The plan is to prevent the federal government from launching new national programs without the consent of the provinces and any province could opt out with full compensation.

Insiders say a constitutional amendment would only deal with federal spending powers and would not lead to wholesale constitutional negotiations to get Quebec to sign on to the 1982 Constitution.

The danger, who speaks for the federal government in this instance, because clearly Harper approaches the matter as though a Premier? Part appeasing Quebec, part old-Reform tribalism mentality, Harper embraces decentralization.

Generally, I support most national programs, even if there is some overlap in jurisdiction, because they tend to keep some sort of symmetry throughout the country. The fear of the federal government seems to reside in some sense that it is a foreign entity, imposing unpopular measures onto the masses. My view of federalism sees the federal government as my government, which has enough detachment to act with a better sense of the greater good. Provinces opt out of federal programs all the time, so I don't see why we need a constitutional amendment that creates rigid provincialism.

Given Harper's alarming paper trail on federalism, I worry about any talk of re-opening the constitution under his watch. When has anyone heard Stephen Harper argue from the federal government position, and because of that can we trust him to counter-balance the Premier's self-interest? The evidence suggests a strong NO, and the issue had better be part of the next election, because I suspect Harper is laying the groundwork now, with a more assertive approach should he be re-elected.

All the Premiers like to beat up on the federal government, in some provinces it is required sport. The role of the Prime Minister is to balance the quest for power and further autonomy, with a general vision and a defence of the federal role. There will always be jurisdictional issues, and constitutional experts seem divided in many areas, that is the nature of our federation. I don't think Canadians are demanding a constitutional amendment that further neuters the federal government. Objectively, Canada is already one of the most de-centralized federations in the world, and we have witnessed continued erosion of federal power over the decades. How much farther does Harper want to take his narrow view, and in so doing will he effectively make Canada a collection of independent quasi-states? Firewall federalism is coming, quietly, but with dangerous consequences.

UPDATE
Rae calls for defeat of Harper. Check out the video, Rae makes a forceful argument.

For a refresher course on who we are dealing with, get alarmed here. Good grief.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

F&W,

This is great news!

The Federal government has been building administrative groups and spending money like drunken sailors on areas of provinical jurisdiction for decades.

It is duplication, and it is damaging govt's ability to provide consistent authoritative services to Canadians. Nobody wants the provinces doing military, why should Ottawa to hospitals?

I applaud the new initiative.

Miles Lunn said...

I think this is a bad idea. I agree that sometimes the federal government sometimes adopts policies that may benefit one region while hurt another, but there are other ways to stop this. More importantly if people want less government, vote for parties that want less government, but if people change their mind later and decide they want more government they should be able to make that change. This would hamstring them preventing them from responding to the voters. Imagine in Ontario if this was the case. Ontarioans initially supported less government by voting for Harris, but later decided it wasn't such a good idea and voted for Dalton McGuinty. Had this existed in Ontario, all the cuts Harris made would be permanate.

Anonymous - Do you know how many hospitals the federal government actually runs? The answer is Zero. In fact further decentralization will not lead to a more unified country. If we look south of the border, the United States was less united 200 years ago when they were more decentralized than they are today as they've become more centralized.

As for Rae's plan, I would wait until parliament returns for the spring session to introduce a non-confidence motion is if it looks like political opportunism it could backfire. Harper is doing a good enough job defeating himself and considering only four bills have passed, we can tie up any bill we don't like in committee and the senate.

Steve V said...

One thing I found interesting about Rae's comments, he said he "decided some weeks ago that Harper has to go". Obviously, Rae has always wanted Harper out, but he seems to be saying that if chosen, he would have no qualms trying to bring down the government in short order.

Miles Lunn said...

I think Rae from Day one wanted Harper defeated, but it would have looked incredibly arrogant to say to the Canadian people they made a mistake and therefore we will force another election so the best choice was to wait and see if Harper turned out to be as bad as he feared, which he probably has.

That being said I think bringing down the government is something we have to do strategically. I can backfire, so we should do at on an issue that most Canadians find offensive. Besides on this issue, the Bloc Quebecois would probably support the Tories anyways, so we need to find a different issue.

That being said I would rather we defeat them before the budget, since I have a feeling they are going to put lots of election goodies in their budget hoping to get re-elected so if we can defeat them before the budget that would be the best. At the same time I think we should wait until February or March since winter campaigns are not the best. I've found ideologues be they left wing or right wing are more motivated to show up at the polls than moderates so if we hold a winter election, what happens if Southern Ontario is hit with a major snow storm and many centrist voters decide to stay home. An early spring election is a wiser idea.

Steve V said...

"That being said I would rather we defeat them before the budget, since I have a feeling they are going to put lots of election goodies in their budget hoping to get re-elected so if we can defeat them before the budget that would be the best."

I agree, and that is why I endorse some sort of non-confidence surrounding the environmental policy and/or demanding Ambrose's resignation. The Tories are on record saying this would be a matter of confidence and this issue would probably give some credibility in bringing down the government.

Anonymous said...

Miles,

There are many areas of "overlapping" jurisdictions. There are buildings in Ottawa full of people that administer and plan and coordiante programming in areas of provincial jurisdiction. This includes health care, certainly, but also includes natural resources, education and transportation.

It is very glib to indicate Ottawa doesn't run hospitals, also false in the context that resources are being punded into administrative structures that don't support active health care. A terrible situation for the taxpayer.

These bump directly into provincial mandates and cause delays, costs, and headaches in provinical program delivery.

But that isn't the worst. The worst is the threat of involvement and manipulation. Where some Ottawa politician or manadarin is convinced that we "must", then all hell breaks lose. We spent 4 years talking healthcare (only at the federal level), to the detriment of actual program planning. How helpful was that?

cheers,

Tomm

Miles Lunn said...

Anonymous - I don't like the idea of overlap, but the solution here is to transfer to the level that can administer it the most efficiently and in some cases this may mean the feds. On the one hand the provinces are more a tuned to the local needs which mary vary across the country, but at the same time doing things federally is cheaper due to economies of scale. In fact part of the reason health care spending is lower in most European countries is health care is done exclusively at the federal level this is despite the fact that on the public/private ratio most European countries are even more public than Canada (70/30 in Canada, 75/25 in France and Germany, 83/17 in Brtain, and 86/14 in Sweden).

The problem here I think is that in the past politicians have for too often pitted one region against another for political gain which is why so many people resent federal government intrusion into provincial areas. If governments governed for the interests of all of Canada it would be a non-issue. In the United States there is far more intrusion into states' jurisdiction than here in Canada, yet since most Americans are American first and loyal to their state a very distant second it is a non-issue for the most part. In fact when the US was more decentralized a 150 years ago, the country was less united than today.

Olaf said...

Steve,

My view of federalism sees the federal government as my government, which has enough detachment to act with a better sense of the greater good

Which province are you in again? Of course someone from Ontario thinks this, because Ontario has the greatest sway over the federal government and is necessarily it's greatest concern.

I don't think what Harper's doing is right, in that it's completely unnecessary given the safeguards already in place. I did a pretty impressive critique of it last week in my Wrangler Weekly series, if I do say so myself.

Still though, the motive behind it is very much a Western/Quebec driven understanding of the country and federalism, which is markedly different from the Ontario perspective. Not sure if I really have a point here.

Miles Lunn said...

Olaf - Off course there is a tendency for federal governments to favour Ontario and so it is understandable Quebec and the West want more autonomy. But the solution is not to build firewalls, but rather develop a more co-operative federalism rather than confrontational one. Paul Martin showed this could be done by getting agreement on the Health Summit, Kelowna Accord, and signing City and childcare deals with all ten provinces. It is a matter of working with the provinces cooperatively not dictating to them what to do, but neither building firewalls.

Likewise in British Columbia where I come from, Gordon Campbell decided to buck the past trend of always picking fights with the feds and instead work with them and it has paid off massively for BC in terms of getting the Pacific Gateway, assistance on the 2010 olympics and much more.

Steve V said...

"Which province are you in again? Of course someone from Ontario thinks this"

I've spent many years in the west :)

Olaf said...

Steve,

How many years? I must know...

Generally speaking Miles, I'd agree with you. I'm not saying that a firewall is the solution, just pointing out that it's easy to be for centralization (or against decentralization) of power when you occupy the centre of the universe. That's all.

Steve V said...

olaf

Five years, on two occasions and I try to go back every year. How many years for you to know "Ontarian" sensibilities? The whole thing is quite funny really.