Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Harper's "Quiet Devolution" to the provinces

This is no Quiet Revolution. Quite the opposite. There's a column in the Ottawa Citizen today, passed along by an eagle-eyed reader, that's an excellent read. Putting into perspective the shrinking leadership on the part of the federal government that Harper has shown. There's a big irony inherent in Mr. Harper's federal-provincial philosophy. Portending to be a strong leader in the world with his "Canada's Back" shtick yet at home, quietly seeking to devolve power to the provinces. Claiming to be the strongest federal leader yet weakening the federal government financially and inciting divisions in the federation - see for example: Newfoundland, Williams; Ontario, Flaherty; and Alberta/Saskatchewan, appeals to the NEP.

I recommend viewing the entire column. Here are some extended excerpts:
The news from Lévis? Ottawa will extend the economic autonomy of the provinces. More specifically, it will allow Quebec to negotiate a unilateral labour-mobility deal with France that would recognize the professional qualifications of its nationals, such as doctors, so they can work in Quebec.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Cannon casts this in the language of conciliation and accommodation. He always does.

"Quebecers are overwhelmingly tired of the battle between those who say they are federalists and those who say they are sovereigntists," he told the Globe and Mail. "Quebecers are nationalist, Quebecers are autonomists, and our political formation is fully responsive to those desires."

Well, there it is. Quebecers are no longer federalists, as Jean Chrétien or Brian Mulroney might have called them, appealing to their broadest instincts. They are no longer Canadians. Now they are "nationalist" and "autonomist" -- and maybe opportunists, too, not that Mr. Cannon would say that.

So, as a national government (or "political formation", as he says), let's appeal to their smallest instincts. Let's give them every power they desire. After all, they're not federalist -- a dirty word in Quebec. They're nationalist! They're autonomist!


Mr. Cannon explains that the government reflects the thinking of George-Etienne Cartier and his conception of Canada as a partnership between two levels of government, which Stephen Harper's Conservatives heartily embrace.
And here's the columnist's view of what this means for the federation:
Now, all this may seem pretty innocuous. Who really cares if the provinces get more money or power? Aren't we all getting wealthy in Canada?

What this represents, though, is something bigger. Fundamentally, the federal government wants to restructure the relationship between itself and the provinces, a significant realignment of authority.

It is an orthodoxy that Mr. Harper embraced years ago, as an angry Albertan, when he proposed a wholesale transfer of powers to the provinces. It assumes they can do things better. It believes that the federal government taxes too much and intrudes too much. It's why Mr. Harper, the most committed provincialist prime minister in our history, has cut taxes and eliminated the surplus, shrinking the federal government's ability to innovate.

This is the Quiet Devolution, a transfer of authority from the centre to the regions. It has been going on unnoticed since the collapse of the constitutional talks in the 1990s. Knowing that amending the Constitution is almost impossible in Canada, administrative federalism has become the new modus operandi.

At a time when Canada is falling behind the rest of the industrialized world in health care, urban renewal, high speed rail, energy conservation and other critical areas (see the recent report card of the Conference Board of Canada), the federal answer is not to lead a national effort seeking national solutions. It is not to speak for Canada.

It is not to worry about the balkanization of the world's most decentralized country. Or the rise of a destructive sectionalism. Or the ebbing attachment of its citizens to the idea of Canada, which is now becoming an association of princely states, duchies and caliphates run by regional pashas.

No, it is to impoverish and diminish the federal government and to do it by stealth. That's the news from Lévis.
And hopefully, this "Quiet Devolution" will make its way, thematically, into our next federal campaign.