Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Can the Centre Hold?

The United States has centuries of discussion around the concept of states’ rights. It is one of the fundamental features of their politics. In Canada the notion of provinces’ rights, or provincial rights is comparatively limited and undeveloped, or at least it has been. I would argue the key reason for this is twofold. First, the smaller, poorer provinces have benefited from a powerful federal government in terms of equalization programmes etc. Greater provincial rights could turn into less federal funding. Second, provincial powers at the federal level typically devolves into a debate about Quebec separation/independence. Quebec politicians, particularly those in the Parti Quebecois have demanded greater autonomy from the federal government.

While the other provinces within Canada may have griped about the power of the central government they did exceedingly little about it. That, I believe, may be changing.

The recent Alberta election was a battle between conservative parties, the Wildrose and the Progressive Conservatives. There is some argument whether or not the Redford-led PCs should be thought of as conservative, but I think it’s fair to say they are an Alberta centrist party. Last night’s result would somewhat endorse that. That being said, the parallels between Redford’s Progressive Conservatives and Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario Liberals are... interesting.

I interpret the battle between the PCs and Wildrose not as a right between centre-right and right, but of a provincialist and federalist party. Redford and her supporters frequently pointed to cooperating with other provinces and federal government and winning them onside for tar sand development, as well as her experience advocating for Alberta in Washington D.C. It might be a bit of a simplification but Danielle Smith, leader of Wildrose, appeared to argue for ‘Alberta first’ policies. The connection between the Wildrose and the Firewall Letter also supports this argument. The Firewall idea was to erect barriers between the federal and provincial government to avoid interference and gain autonomy, much like Quebec.

I saw this angle barely discussed in the media, so I think it may have been overlooked to some degree. Alberta voters may have suggested that they wish to engage in confederation and not disengage. That, or simply thought the Wildrosers were not ready for government.

Ontario often argued it carried the weight of confederation. It made sacrifices to make confederation work. This is best demonstrated by equalization payments as Ontario supported social programmes across the country. During the constitutional debates of the 1980s Premier David Peterson made concessions not always in the best interest of Ontario to make a deal work. Peterson’s Liberal successor seems less committed to taking one for the Canadian Team. Premier McGuinty has expressed concerns that the equalization formula needs to be rethought. Given Ontario’s gigantic deficit and debt the notion of sending money off to other provinces likely irks the Premier.

The NDP, who swept Quebec, argue for asymmetric federalism, granting privileges to Quebec for its unique position within confederation. In general the Conservatives believe decentralization is a valuable concept. The party which has fought most consistently for a strong federal government, the Liberals, have been relegated to third and are politically adrift.

Immigration policy is being shifted to the provinces. The federal government is increasingly becoming a distribution centre for funds to support provincial initiatives. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but it does weaken the purpose of the federal government. Other energy producing provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are likely chaffing under federal intervention, and the complaining about federal regulation not responding to local needs is legendary (discussions about the Newfoundland fishery comes to mind here). Ultimately the question is do Canadian want a strong federal government? Canada is a highly regional country. There are things appropriate for provinces and for the federal government to do, but power seems to be slipping more and more to the provinces. I believe we are poorly served by not having this conversation at all.

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