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Maybe Harper really does have a ‘hidden agenda'. Let's hope so, anyway Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 02 January 2006

Here’s betting you’ve never heard of the federal “spending power” -- even though, if you’re a working Albertan or Ontarian, it probably costs you thousands of dollars a year.

Conservative leader Stephen Harper had this to say about it shortly before Christmas in Quebec City:

“This outrageous spending power gave rise to the domineering and paternalistic federalism which is a serious threat to our future... The functioning and the very spirit of the Canadian federation are at stake.”

Harper is the first national political leader I’ve ever heard criticize the federal spending power, or even mention it.

So what exactly is it?

It’s the right that Ottawa asserts to take your money to spend on things that are none of its constitutional business, in parts of the country that you’ve probably never seen, to be spent in ways over which you have no political control.

For example, the Constitution directs that provincial governments will be “exclusively responsible” for what are now called health, education, social services and economic development. And one would assume that includes paying for them.

The people who founded our country didn’t want Ottawa micro-managing Canadian life.

So why, you might ask, is Ottawa spending billions every year for health and hospitals, university education, social services and regional development? Why does Paul Martin have a “cities agenda” and a “child care agenda,” and take credit for “fixing health care for a generation?” These are all provincial, not federal.

Answer: the federal spending power that Harper mentioned in Quebec.

The fatal flaw in our Constitution is this: it says clearly enough which level of government does what, but it doesn’t say who pays for what. Given its silence, Ottawa has assumed a power to spend money on things that are none of its concern and for which it cannot politically account.

If your reaction is, “Who cares, as long as these things get done,” you’re a good, docile, politically irresponsible Canadian. Open your wallet. Wider. Mr. Martin has big plans.

It’s like saying to your doctor, “I don’t care if you’re not a surgeon, just open me up and do your best.”

It helps explain why there has been no rise in real after-tax income in this country for 15 years, why average U.S. after-tax personal income is now 45% higher than ours, why we have a second-rate medical system, why we’ve fallen below 15 countries like Iceland and Denmark in productivity, and how we’ve sunk from fourth to twelfth on the global scale of political corruption.

There’s no accountability, because there are no constitutional limits.

Albertans lose about $11,000 per household annually -- yes, annually -- to this federal spending power, and that number is expected to double within four years. Ontarians lose almost $6,000 per household annually.

The beneficiaries live in Manitoba, Quebec and the Atlantic. But as the Fraser Institute, Frontier Centre and Atlantic Institute have documented for years, they are not “beneficiaries” at all. These federal transfers are holding the recipient economies back, not moving them ahead.

The only real beneficiaries are the Ottawa politicians and bureaucrats running the system.

Harper didn’t say what he would do to reform the “spending power,” if he ever gets the chance.

But the mere fact he mentioned it is a very positive sign.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.

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