Saturday, August 06, 2011

Columnists gone wild

Quite a column from John Ibbitson for a lazy Saturday in August: "Will Cautious Stephen Harper let Wild Steve run free?" It's a musing on whether the thus far apparently cautious PM we've seen - census, cough, constitutional crisis, cough, gazebo builder extraordinaire, cough - will now morph into his wilder more conservative version. On three issues specifically, EI, equalization and health care, major Canadian social programs but unhelpfully framed as "the entitlement regime" by Ibbitson (language matters, we should identify and reject these framings immediately). The column reads as if the possible changes for these social programs are trial balloons, maybe certain folks are getting ramped up for a fall agenda and are seeding the landscape, who knows.

Anyway, Ibbitson muses about how Harper has a free hand now to move on such issues:
"The Conservatives in Ottawa have virtually no opposition. Both the Liberals and the NDP are in disarray, struggling with the challenges of interim leaders and internal contradictions, while a raft of provincial elections this fall could put rookie conservative premiers in office across much of the country. Politically, this is as close to carte blanche as it gets."
Somewhat true. But the federal Conservatives were just elected on a specific platform. None of what Ibbitson raises in his column today appeared in that platform. So no one should be getting carried away with the "carte blanche" advice from Ibbitson. Let's call that one out, clearly. It's not right. Not that such niceties are likely to deter this Prime Minister, mind you, but it should give a cautious Prime Minister pause. One who has a sense of his mandate, rather than some interpretive policy dance he's going to do all over our social programs.

Here's what's possibly on the agenda according to Ibbitson on equalization for example:
"Equalization would be another priority for Wild Steve. The complex formula is clearly broken, since Ontario now collects more from it than any province other than Quebec. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has suggested in the past that perhaps the whole system should be scrapped. He won’t get much of an argument from voters in the “have” provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. All three are Tory bastions."
Yep, scrap the whole system. He's not presenting McGuinty's present position on equalization, for the record. So if this is somebody's idea for a present day basis for eliminating the equalization formula, probably not a good one. We can just imagine the opposition that we'll see from Ontario, Quebec and the maritime provinces on this doozy. Fixing a problem is one thing, floating the scrapping of it is a whole other can of worms. (More here on McGuinty's position; here's a right wing institute that's been laying the ground for equalization reform since early 2010.)

More from Ibbitson:
Then there’s health care. The current federal funding formula expires in 2014. Some premiers want Mr. Harper to get started on a new plan that would last another decade. But Wild Steve would rather cut 10 separate deals, freeing those provinces that want more leeway to experiment with parallel private care from the strictures of the Canada Health Act.
Is your head shaking yet? 10 separate deals on health care. You second guess yourself on whether this is all truly satire at this stage, but no.

See also the EI proposal in the column.

Canadians who believe we are all in this together on the social ties that bind us should should pay attention to such trial balloons. Surely it's all coming from somewhere.