Decentralized Canada would be calamitous

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The BBC's satirical comedy Spitting Image profiled British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with the following uproarious skit, played by uncannily accurate latex caricatures. The "Iron Lady" and her cabinet are out for dinner. The waiter inquires what she will have. "I will have the steak," she says. "And what about the vegetables," asks the waiter. "They will have the same as me," she replies, nodding towards her ministers.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/01/2011 (4234 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The BBC’s satirical comedy Spitting Image profiled British prime minister Margaret Thatcher with the following uproarious skit, played by uncannily accurate latex caricatures. The “Iron Lady” and her cabinet are out for dinner. The waiter inquires what she will have. “I will have the steak,” she says. “And what about the vegetables,” asks the waiter. “They will have the same as me,” she replies, nodding towards her ministers.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is an “Iron Man” too, according to his former campaign manager, University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan. Harper has created “a garrison party,” Flanagan writes in the current issue of Inroads Magazine. “Message discipline is carefully enforced at all levels and a high level of secrecy surrounds internal deliberations. The overall atmosphere is almost military.” Harper is “dominant and controlling,” Flanagan continues. “Conservative staffers and operatives almost never talk to the press.” Indeed, “they risk unemployment if they do.”

This makes it difficult to believe Quebec Conservative MP Maxime Bernier is freelancing when he tours the country calling for the end of Canada’s national social programs.

Bernier, a former industry and foreign affairs minister who was kicked out of cabinet after leaving his briefing notes at his ex-biker girlfriend’s apartment, is the Conservative Party’s most prominent libertarian and a fervid decentralist. In that, he is very much like his boss. Before becoming Conservative leader, Harper was president of the National Citizens Coalition, a secretive far-right lobby group founded by millionaire Colin Brown in 1967 to oppose medicare and other “outrages” of the liberal state such as unions, non-white immigration, pay equity, the minimum wage and environmental standards.

Bernier, and presumably Harper, don’t dare attack medicare outright, knowing it’s Canadians’ most cherished national social program. Rather, they, or at least Bernier, in several major speeches, is calling for an end to Ottawa’s annual $40 billion in social and health transfers to the provinces.

“Instead of sending money to the provinces, Ottawa would cut its taxes and let them use the fiscal room that has been vacated,” Bernier told Toronto’s Albany Club last October. “Such a transfer of tax points to the provinces would allow them to fully assume their responsibilities, without federal control.”

In addition to terminating the $30 billion Canada Health Transfer and the $11 billion social transfer, Bernier said he would cancel all federal programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction to return to the intentions of the Fathers of Confederation in 1867. Abolishing Ottawa’s role in medicare would “force” the provinces to find “innovative” and “better” (read private) ways to fund it.

“The federal government today intervenes massively in provincial jurisdictions, and in particular in health and education, two areas where it has no constitutional legitimacy whatsoever,” Bernier said. “This is not what the Fathers of Confederation had intended.”

Bernier’s sentiments express, less crudely, the views the prime minister, then heading the NCC, revealed in a letter to the National Post in 2000: “Canada appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status.”

Decentralism and provincial power has been a common refrain from Canada’s Right for decades. It doesn’t conform to Canadian reality. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, an icon of the modern Canadian Conservative movement, the Canadian constitution awards all residual powers, those powers not specifically assigned to one or the other level of government, to the federal government, not to the provinces. The most powerful residual power of all is the federal spending power — the broad right of the national government “to make laws for the Peace, Order and Good Government of Canada,” embracing all matters, foreseeable or otherwise, not “assigned exclusively to the legislatures.”

Decentralism and provincial power appeals to the Canadian right for the obvious reason that the smaller the government, the less powerful and capable it is. Provinces do have the advantage of being “closer to the people,” but that is of little use if they have no money to spend on the people, as was the case during the Great Depression. That economic cataclysm spurred the creation of Canada’s equalization program, subsequently entrenched in the 1982 Constitution, and designed to ensure all Canadians enjoy reasonably comparable government services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

Should Bernier, and presumably Harper, get their wish and cancel all shared-cost programs, replacing them with individual provincial tax points of vastly unequal value, the social and economic devastation in every province, with the possible exception of Alberta, would be calamitous.

Frances Russell is Winnipeg author

and political commentator.

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