Fixing the Federation
Saturday, 01 October 2005

Fixing the Federation

The federal system, like bad weather, is something almost everyone complains about, but does nothing to fix.

The federal system, like bad weather, is something almost everyone complains about, but does nothing to fix.

The difference is that bad weather gets better. A corrupt federalism just gets worse.

This is the hard truth of political liberty: use it or lose it.

As things now stand, we will just get more and more travesties like gay marriage, the unreformed Senate, the gun registry boondoggle, the sponsorship scandal, the Belinda Stronach affair, the illegal refusal of the Martin government to resign, and wasteful federal spending sprees like the one this spring to shore up a sagging government.

But worst of all is the floundering of the opposition Conservatives.

The floundering is not their fault. They are plainly in an impossible position. If they demand systemic change, they are rejected by most eastern voters as “angry,” “extremist” and “scary.” But if they won’t bring change, what on earth use are they?

All this proves that the Canadian federal system has not only broken down -- something most people knew a long time ago -- it proves that it can’t be fixed or reformed.

Not from within. Not from Ottawa.

Yet change it must. The question is -- how?

Reform is possible -- from Alberta

The Citizens Centre is putting together a strategy for Albertans, supported by other Canadians, to fix the federal system.

Through their provincial government, Albertans have the economic and constitutional power to force federal change. But they must be willing to <ital>use<ital> it, including if necessary negotiating new terms of union with Canada.

Some people would call this “separatism,” but it isn’t. Not if the goal is to fix the federation rather than break it up.

Interestingly enough, the question most people ask is not whether this should be done, but how.

Ask and ye shall not receive

Three fundamental reforms

Since Preston Manning launched the Reform Party in 1987, western demands for deep reform have focused on three things:

  • A provincially-elected, provincially equal and effective Senate.
  • Restrictions on federal spending.
  • Referendums on major social issues now decided by the courts.

The attempt of the Reform Party to get these three changes did not last long. To appeal to eastern Canadians, the party soon had to stop emphasizing them. People in the central and eastern regions, for the most part, see no need for them. Yet they remain core beliefs in western Canadian hearts and minds.

This “triple-reform” is striking in several ways:

First, there is nothing “separatist” about it. It’s a coherent federal vision laying out clear divisions of authority and responsibility -- far more coherent than Ottawa’s.

Second, it would be good for all parts of Canada, not just the West. Federal spending has ruined and corrupted the regions it was designed to help. Judicial supremacy is destroying Canadians’ democratic self-respect. In the absence of a real Senate, prime ministerial power has corrupted government and castrated Parliament.

Third, implementing this triple-reform would reverse in one masterstroke the whole constitutional drift of the country over the last half century. In fact it would restore the original vision of Canada’s founders -- provincial primacy in social and economic matters, national primacy over sovereignty and security.

The first requirement is a government in Alberta with a clear constitutional vision and program.

Under Ralph Klein, this hasn’t happened.

However, his government did provide a starting-point for progress with the release last summer (July, 2004) of a report entitled “Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation.”

Chaired by then-MLA Ian McClelland and eight other Conservative backbenchers, it was a response to agitation by supporters of the Citizens Centre and the Alberta Residents League.

The “Strengthening” report got some things right.

It recommended more vigorous pursuit of a Triple E Senate, further consideration of an Alberta Provincial Police, further court challenges to the gun registry, exempting Alberta from the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, challenging Ottawa’s expansion of Employment Insurance, giving provinces a veto on environmental treaties, and ending federal health and social transfers to the provinces.

However, the report left a central question glaringly unanswered. It strongly advised Alberta against taking a confrontation with Ottawa. But how can anything succeed without one?

Alberta and other provinces have been losing ground in all these areas for the last fifty years. Other provinces were co-opted by Ottawa’s “fiscal federalism” decades ago, and many now depend on it. Alberta can beg for reform until it’s blue, Ottawa doesn’t listen and other provinces won’t help.

In fact, nothing can change for the better unless the Alberta government takes a much harder line.

And it can.

Cut off the money!

Breaking the deadlock

Albertans must be prepared to act alone, confident that Canada needs Alberta more than Alberta needs Canada, and that Alberta’s brand of federalism is better for Canada than Ottawa’s.

Only a constitutional show of force by Alberta can break the political deadlock.

To force federal reform, Albertans must:

  • Choose a premier willing to confront Ottawa when Ralph Klein retires.

  • Move immediately to take control of all provincial jurisdictions that Alberta has contracted to the federal government -- especially policing, provincial income tax collection, and Alberta’s share of the Canada Pension Plan.

  • Bring a Resolution into the Legislature to amend the Canadian Constitution, to implement the triple-reform (an equal and elected Senate, federal spending restrictions, and a democratic brake on the courts -- see preceding).

For this to succeed, there must be an air about it of urgency and resolve. It can’t be just one thing on the new premier’s “to-do” list. It has to be Priority One.

When any province proposes a constitutional amendment, other Canadian governments have three years to consider it. To succeed it needs approval by both Houses of Parliament and at least six other provinces, including either Ontario or Quebec.

An Alberta amendment as far-reaching as the triple-reform will not be taken seriously by other governments. They will either vote it down or let the clock run out. At most they might convene a federal conference to discuss “western alienation” and to see what Quebec wants.

The government of Alberta must answer this inevitable indifference with a militant response.

At the appropriate time it should bring into the legislature a second Resolution, declaring that a “state of constitutional emergency” will exist if the amendment is refused. If Albertans agree in a referendum, this second Resolution could empower the provincial government to assume control of federal tax collection until the emergency is over.

Mechanically, this would be simple if Alberta had already taken charge of its own provincial income tax collection. The province would simply require companies and individuals to remit federal income tax deductions to the Alberta Treasury. Those who refuse would be prosecuted. Any who are penalized by Ottawa will be defended without charge by the province.

Ottawa would never accept this, of course. It would accuse Alberta of a UDI (unilateral declaration of independence). But what Ottawa says hardly matters as long as Alberta can successfully shut down federal tax collection. As soon as the income stream from Alberta is cut, Ottawa will find itself in a losing position.

For instance, what will Ontario do -- subsidize the entire federal system by itself?

What will Quebec and the Atlantic provinces do -- kiss goodbye to the resource wealth of the West, as Saskatchewan and British Columbia come on side with Alberta?

Money has a way of focusing the mind, and several factors will occur to the other provinces:

First, that Alberta is re-confederating Canada, not separating. Second, that Alberta (even more than Ontario) has always been generous, and will continue to be if the amendment goes through. Third, that there is nothing actually wrong with provincial equality in an elected Senate (like most comparable federations), democratic hegemony over the courts (like most democracies), and a restricted social and economic role for the federal government (as was originally intended).

After all, it’s not as though Ottawa’s long-term political bribery and intimidation have earned it respect and friendship among the receiving provinces.

This discussion could be helped along by Alberta once it controls the net $10 billion annual surplus Ottawa has been removing from the province.

Alberta could offer “adjustment funding” in reasonable amounts over reasonable periods of time to the less affluent provinces (it is ridiculous to call them “poor”).

The only condition might be that their level of private investment must go up (to create jobs), and their level of social dependency must go down.

Alberta could be creative and flexible. Its sole aim will be to get the other provinces standing on their own feet as soon as possible, whereas Ottawa’s interest has always been to perpetuate dependency on federal handouts financed by Albertans and Ontarians.

Strategic action

Choosing Alberta’s next premier

Ralph Klein has promised to resign two years from now (fall 2007), but the contest to replace him is already underway and he may leave sooner.

The Citizens Centre will question the five or six prospective Conservative leadership candidates about where they stand on the McClelland recommendations (see preceding), and about the level of effort they would bring to federal reform.

We will also question the two candidates seeking to lead the Alberta Alliance party.

We’ll report what they say in our next newsletter, and on our Web site ( ).

This will enable our supporters in Alberta to get behind the candidate they think best suited to lead Alberta and Canada in this direction.

Progress on provincial powers and the ‘Alberta Agenda’

Two years ago, the Citizens Centre joined forces with Pat Beauchamp’s Alberta Residents League to promote the “Alberta Agenda” -- Alberta taking control of provincial policing, provincial income tax collection, and Alberta’s share of the Canada Pension Plan.

Significantly, Alberta Solicitor General Harvey Cenaiko is now choosing a site for a new $40 million provincial police training academy. Though it’s to help train Alberta’s municipal police forces, the McClelland committee (see preceding) did recommend serious further consideration of replacing the local policing functions of the RCMP, and a provincial training facility would be a necessary first step.

Pat and the Residents League are building a formidable network of municipal, business and farm leaders throughout the province to implement the Alberta Agenda. This is an essential step towards refederating Canada, for if the Alberta government does not quickly take control of policing, old age pensions and provincial tax collection, it cannot enforce a winning constitutional amendment.

To join or support the ARL, phone 403-265-3669, or visit its Web site at

A ‘Calgary Congress’ to map out our constitutional future

Meanwhile, we at the Citizens Centre are organizing a public assembly in Calgary for next fall.

The Calgary Congress will consist of leading political and constitutional experts and grassroots Canadians who assemble to consider and define what Alberta’s constitutional position should be. The organizers can then launch a push to see it adopted by the provincial government when a new premier has been chosen.

The Congress has an important role in finding and building consensus. Should Alberta demand a Triple-E Senate? Should it demand constitutional limits on federal spending? What should it demand in the area of judicial reform? Exactly how should it prepare to enforce such a hard line on the federal government?

The Citizens Centre has been consulting with key people and believes a public, high-profile assembly is the best avenue forward.

Before the Calgary Congress, work needs to be done to raise the level of background knowledge among our supporters and those who attend the event, as well as among politicians, the media and the public.

We need as well to poll carefully the attitude of Albertans towards federalism as it now stands. We know from other polls that almost half of Albertans are ready to consider separation and that most support the Alberta Agenda. What we don’t know is whether they’ll support a hard line by the government of Alberta to force constitutional reform within Canada.

A clear and better vision

Difficult as this agenda may appear, it’s not as though the Alberta/Canada status quo offers a better alternative.

Albertans can and will bring about change when they are shown a clear and better vision of the future, and understand that they have both the economic power and the moral responsibility to make it happen.

Please do your part to move this forward.