Friday, May 14, 2010

Red Flag! Provincial Autonomy Creeping or Chomping in Canada?

For the past decade, Canada’s provincial landscape has been as stable as the federal scene has been in flux.

That may be about to change.

In Quebec and British Columbia, the governments of the Liberal premiers who have anchored the provincial table are increasingly adrift. And the tectonic plates of Alberta could be on the verge of a historical shift.

The advent of a more autonomist government in Alberta; the return of a sovereignist party to power in Quebec; a resurgence of the populist protest politics that use to make British Columbia the most volatile provincial scene in the country are all on the radar.

At the same time, fundamental federal-provincial arrangements pertaining to Medicare and equalization will soon have to be renegotiated; prospects for a return to federal surpluses are distant and those of a return majority rule in Parliament remain low.

There may be a perfect storm in the making on the federal-provincial horizon and if and when it comes the women who are waiting in the opposition wings of some of Canada’s major provinces could very much be in the thick of the tempest. (Chantal Hebert, Toronto Star, May 10,2010)

(The women Ms Hebert is referring to including the PQ leader Pauline Marois and the Redrose Alliance leader in Alberta.)

Ms Hebert is a highly respected political commentator, whose taking of the pulse of the Canadian political heart beat usually ranks her as one of the more insightful.
However, it is the Canadian electorate, currently languishing in a somnambulant state, since Harper was elected, that must wake up and come to terms with the kind of country they want to see for their grandchildren.
Seeing the federal government as the "parent" to the fledgling "children" provinces was never the intent of those who wrote the Canadian constitution. Specific powers (health, education, interior highways, social services) generally focussing on the lives of their residents were assigned to the provinces while national issues like the post, military, currency and foreign policy were assigned, along with a "residual clause" of items not specifically dedicated to the provinces, to the federal government.
It is the question of the right to tax that may lie at the heart of our future deliberations. Both the province and the federal government have taxing powers, yet the federal income tax, the big revenue-generator, rests with the feds. Negotiations between provinces and Ottawa over how to divide federally collected funds for provincial programs has never been simple, easy or necessarily equitable, in the provinces' view.
However, our's is an extremely complicated governance system, based largely on tradition, custom, the relationships between political leaders and other less than legal and legally defined components.
Assuming a stance whose undercurrent is "the patronizing federal government" by any provinces, singly or collectively must not be the starting point for any future deliberations. Since the PQ really has no other goal than independence, any other aspiring provincial leader would do well to distance him or herself from such a posture.
And the rest of us would do well to hold those other provincial leaders' feet to the fire of a country that refuses to become balkanized further.

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