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Hand it to Stephen Harper -- he has a plan Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Tuesday, 14 November 2006
In politics, as in canoeing and trout fishing, you have to “read the river.” This means scanning the froth and chatter of the surface for tell-tale signs of what’s actually going on down below.

Here’s one tell-tale sign.

According the front page of last Friday’s Toronto Star, in the past two weeks Harper has met quietly with the premiers of Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick -- and telephoned several others -- to “discreetly sound out” the possibility of an astonishingly bold proposal.

He is said to be suggesting that Ottawa could, over time, entirely vacate areas specifically assigned to provinces by the Constitution. This might conclude with a constitutional prohibition on federal spending in provincial fields.
This is breathtaking. It would mean an end to federal funding of health care, universities, welfare and cities (at a minimum), and (possibly) infrastructure, job creation and regional development. It would also seem to doom the federal Equalization program.

Each province would once again handle all these things for itself, or co-operate to these ends with other provinces.
Imagine -- if you can -- a national election in which politicians talk only about defence, foreign affairs, immigration, citizenship, airports and the Criminal Code -- and no more about “caring and sharing,” because it isn’t their business.

Nothing will be decided before the next election, but the idea of restricting future federal spending may be central to that election when it comes. Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff has helped by stirring up the issue of whether Quebec is a “nation.” But Harper was already on this parallel (and better) course, starting with his “open federalism” election speech in Quebec a year ago.

One provincial Quebec official (unnamed) described Harper’s proposal as having a “good possibility” of success, because it satisfies one of Quebec’s five longstanding constitutional demands.

Ontario, meanwhile, has been demanding limits on federal spending for years, especially in Equalization.

What Alberta wants won’t be known until a new premier has been elected. If Harper is lucky it will be Ted Morton, the only candidate with a clear federal philosophy.

In any case, federal and provincial ministers will pursue the idea further at a meeting next month.

So watch the water and read the little ripples.

In September fiscal experts from all regions of Canada explained to the Calgary Congress why federal spending should be restricted, and why provinces are better guardians than Ottawa of social policy.

Then the influential Fraser Institute published Canada’s most radical policy paper to date on the subject. It proposed that Ottawa discontinue all major social transfers (health, universities, welfare and Equalization), cut federal business taxes, and that provinces cope by reducing programs and/or raising provincial sales taxes.

It’s interesting that all three Federal Principles identified by the Calgary Congress -- restrict federal spending, reform the Senate and restrain the courts -- are being pursued in modest ways by the Harper government. And it’s on these three things that Liberals and their allies go most ballistic.

It would be nice if this could all be tidily resolved behind closed doors, but it can’t. Soon it will come to a mean, ugly political brawl between constitutional conservatives and progressives.

Through events like the Calgary Congress, and through publications like this one, the Citizens Centre helps to prepare Canadians for that day.

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.

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