Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harper creating 13 kinds of citizens

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At last, it's out in the open for all to see. The Harper Conservatives are not just abandoning the national government's leadership role in medicare and social policy.

They are ending its constitutional responsibility to promote a common Canadian citizenship by ensuring "reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable rates of taxation."

The Harperites' partisan political interest trumps everything, so they've ensured the axe won't finally fall on medicare's five principles of universality, accessibility, comprehensiveness, portability and public administration until after the 2016 federal election. Until then, health transfers will continue to rise at the current six per cent annual rate. After that, Ottawa's participation will dwindle to a per-capita grant tied to economic growth.

The future of Canada's constitutionally entrenched equalization program is uncertain.

This is devastating news for the vast majority of Canadians who live in provinces without oil, gas and potash.

Anyone who followed the rise of the current Conservative party from its roots in Preston Manning's Alberta-based Reform party knows it has a uniquely American perspective on the role of government -- specifically, that it be as small as possible except when it comes to defence, crime and punishment and an aggressive militaristic patriotism.

During his years with the National Citizens' Coalition, founded by wealthy London, Ont., insurance executive Colin Brown to fight medicare and unionization, Stephen Harper refined his opposition to "big government," particularly medicare, and formulated his "strict constructionist" approach to the constitution to better attack a Canada he once openly derided as "a second-tier socialistic country."

"Whether Canada ends up with one national government or two governments or 10 governments," he said in 1994, "the Canadian people will require less government no matter what the constitutional status or arrangement of any future country may be."

In a recent column published in the Globe and Mail, Geoff Norquay, a former social-policy adviser to Brian Mulroney and director of communications for Harper, writes that the prime minister has "a very different federal-provincial agenda" that "seriously respects the constitution. It's also about provinces finally coming of age and being mature enough to manage their own affairs."

Harper has a "better idea" than previous prime ministers who subjected themselves to periodic "noisy and messy" first ministers' conferences, Norquay continues. Harper's idea "started with the Constitution." Harper is "a classic federalist" who "believes passionately" in the "sanctity" of sections 91 and 92 of the 1867 British North America Act setting out the respective powers of Ottawa and the provinces.

Norquay points to Harper's 2006 Policy Options article as the guide to understanding the prime minister's view of federalism.

"It's always been my preference to see Ottawa do what the federal government is supposed to do," Harper wrote.

"Ottawa has gotten into everything in recent years, not just provincial jurisdiction but now municipal jurisdiction.

"And yet at the same time, if you look at Ottawa's major responsibilities, national defence, for example, the economic union, foreign affairs, beginning obviously with the most important relationship, with the U.S., Ottawa hasn't done a very good job."

Norquay approvingly notes that as prime minister, Harper "started by addressing a number of long-standing federal-provincial issues," particularly limiting "the use of the federal spending power to create new shared-cost programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction."

Norquay believes Ottawa's latest move, unilaterally abolishing Ottawa's leadership role in health and social policy, should be seen as "the next logical step in a maturing federation." Others see Harper's non-negotiable take-it-or-leave-it approach to federal-provincial relations as a threat to national unity.

His disrespect for the provinces is a clear violation of the Constitution Act of 1982. It is as much a part of Canada's Constitution as the BNA Act.

Sec. 36 (1) directly contradicts the Harper Conservatives' "strict constructionist" stance. It states that "Parliament and the legislatures... are committed to promoting equal opportunities for the well-being of Canadians; furthering economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities; and providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians."

Sec. 36(2) states "Parliament and the government of Canada are committed to the principle of making equalization payments to ensure that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation."

Watertight constitutional compartments and black-letter interpretation of constitutional law promote provincial -- and citizen -- inequality. "Empowering" the provinces disempowers all but the most wealthy provinces.

The poorer the province, the poorer will be its public services.

Canadians will end up, not with one citizenship, but 13 distinct -- and ever-more-disparate -- provincial and territorial citizenships.

Frances Russell is a Winnipeg author and political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2012 A10

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