Swinging for the Fences on a Decentralized Canada

By Jason Menard

Generally, in an election campaign, you win by promising to do more. However, Conservative leader Stephen Harper may have finally connected by, of all things, promising to do less as Prime Minister of Canada.

Of course, instead of hitting a home run, his blast went just to the outside of the foul pole – but at least he was swinging for the fences. The idea of provincial autonomy is good. The idea of Quebec representing itself in international organizations, like UNESCO, is not.

Decentralized government has been the buzz word in federal-provincial relations for the past few years. The idea of provinces having more autonomy on spending and resource management is a great deal for certain areas. Alberta, for example, would have no trouble with the idea of federal hands being removed from their pocketbooks.

And on a national unity level, increased provincial autonomy over matters of state would go a long way towards quelling separatist movement in the province of Quebec. That’s the whole basis behind the much-ballyhooed distinct society clause – recognizing Quebec and its predominantly French population as unique and worth preserving.

But how much is too much? Individual provinces representing themselves at International organizations, trade functions, and the like only serves to marginalize the country as a whole and reduce our ability to bargain from any position of leverage. Would the have and have not provinces sit around the same table, undercutting each other for the right to new contracts, simply because they only have their own interests at heart?

There still needs to be a strong federal presence in the global marketplace. The power of one clear voice outweighs that of 10 separate voices all clamouring to be heard over one another.

So if not on the global stage, where should the provinces earn the right to do more? Where it counts most – in their own backyards. Once upon a time, the federal government allocated lump sums of money to the provinces in the form of transfer payments, with which the provinces could do as they pleased. Need a little extra in health care this year? Fine. How about taking some of that public works pot and balancing out the education budget? Great!

But that transfer payment pot has been steadily shrinking. An increase in no-strings-attached transfer payments from the feds to the provinces would allow the provinces to meet the region’s priorities on a local level – not dictated by a federal overseer.

This country needs to be run like a business, with the provinces acting as franchises. A decentralized government at its best would oversee the national social programs, national trade, and the laws of the land, while leaving the more administrative duties to the provinces. As managers of their own regions, the provincial leaders would be able to take their federal funds and channel them towards the programs and issues of most demand for their constituents.

Overall, the various franchises will continue to work together to ensure that that brand as a whole – Canada – is stronger than the sum of its parts! You won’t see one McDonald’s bad-mouthing another franchise down the road, just to boost its own sales, so why would we want to encourage that type of behaviour in inter-provincial relations?

We need that federal presence to ensure we remain a country. All this talk from provinces such as Ontario and Quebec who complain that they’re either paying too much or receiving too little from the federal-provincial relationship miss the point that confederation isn’t an equal-in, equal-out proposition. If we decentralize to the point of provincial autonomy, we will lose this national support network and focus on Canada. We will become little enclaves, standing up for only our own best interests instead of that of other Canadians.

That’s not a Canada in which I want to live. If my overtaxed Ontario dollars are going to subsidize a less fortunate Atlantic region, then I can live with that. In the grand scheme of things, we want to make this country stronger as a whole – not just select regions of prosperity.

So while Mr. Harper’s first swing at a renewed concept of federalism may have resulted in a foul ball, a few adjustments in his stance and keeping his eye on the big picture may see him hit a home run with an idea for a new Canada.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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