As the annual meeting of the interprovincial Council of the Federation (COF) opens today, the thirteen provincial premiers and territorial leaders will announce the results of two working groups, one on health care innovation, and the other on fiscal arrangements. They will also address a national energy strategy. What should we expect? The answer is not much.
These are national issues that cannot be adequately addressed without the leadership of the one government that speaks for all Canadians – the federal government. No matter how much some provinces may wish it otherwise, we cannot have an effective national energy strategy, including credible action on greenhouse gas emissions, without Ottawa. Even with the able input from national stakeholder groups like the Canadian Medical Association and the Canadian Nurses Association, provincial premiers will not be able to implement effective national health care standards. And with respect to fiscal arrangements, the premiers’ mandate is so vague as to be virtually meaningless.
This year’s annual COF meeting will likely highlight how much the federal government is missing in action in the national life of our country. But of course this is deliberate on Mr. Harper’s part. The prime minister continues to follow a carefully controlled path of shrinking the federal government, turning Canadians’ cynicism with the ability of government to find practical solutions to the big national issues like inadequate healthcare and climate change, into a virtue. His endgame is simple: remake Canada with a diminished federal government, regardless of the impact on our national economic and social fabric. Focus on a few limited goals: more police to make our streets safe, money in our pockets from pipelines to get oil to international markets (whether from construction or clean-up operations), a new bridge after the old one is well past the best-before date. Mr. Harper is creating a weak Canadian version of the European Union by reverse osmosis – concentrating executive power around him, consolidating federal power in fewer areas and spinning off the tricky inconvenient parts, like maintaining comparable public services across the country and the national economic union, to the provinces.
Mr. Harper believes that by abandoning federal responsibilities and creating a vacuum, the provinces will be forced to try to assume responsibility for matters of national interest and national standards, in much the same way that he believes that the private sector will eventually step into the breach to save any worthwhile environmental initiative that lost essential federal funding in the latest budget. And he is calculating that by the next national election, Canadians will be settling into the new normal of limited national government, and will be blaming provinces for any shortcomings in public services and environmental protection. In the meantime, interprovincial conflict will escalate and lead to destructive economic competition for investment and jobs across the country that is won by a race to the bottom instead of the top – the provinces with the weakest environmental standards and employment protections.
But Mr. Harper is miscalculating the acquiescence of Canadians. Canadians know that national leadership is needed to provide all citizens, regardless of our provincial or territorial residence, with comparable levels of public services and maximum economic opportunities in a fair, efficient and sustainable way. Provincial premiers cannot collaborate well enough on their own or as members of the interprovincial Council of the Federation to maintain equity and economic opportunities across the country. The premiers are first and foremost responsible for provincial interests that are not necessarily compatible. They are not naturally wired to think national.
But Canadians have to be convinced that practical national leadership can produce results and get things done: coherent national action is possible that can have an impact on our lives. For example, long-term investment, not short-term spending, for building and strengthening our infrastructure – not just bridges, water systems, public transit and broadband networks, but also the human networks that make us a great nation – not just enough doctors, nurses, teachers and scientists, but also enough community centre workers, teacher assistants and tutors, apprenticeship and skills trainers, childcare and homecare workers.
It is urgent for Canadians to demand that Ottawa step up to the plate with down-to-earth plans and achievable goals, and lead a more cooperative and collegial federation. We should consider the creation of a Council of Canadian Governments and provide the national leadership that Mr. Harper has abdicated, and convince Canadians that all their governments can competently work together in the national interest to build tomorrow’s Canada – a powerhouse of prosperity, sustainable living and social justice.