Toronto Star

Harper’s empty chair


In 2005 Stephen Harper, then leader of the Opposition, proposed a new kind of federal-provincial dynamic he called “open federalism.” If elected, Harper promised, the Conservati­ves would act as partners with the provinces not as puppet masters. They would quash the Liberal practice of imposing an agenda through financial transfers with strings attached, and would bring an end to the bickering that had characteri­zed federal-provincial relations for decades.

Harper vowed that a Tory administra­tion would provide “full co-operation . . . with all other levels of government, while clarifying the roles and responsibi­lities of each.”

All this sounded good particular­ly to Quebec, which had long called for transfers without conditions. Voters in that province helped propel the Conservati­ves to victory in 2006.

But eight years later, and at the close of this year in particular, Ottawa’s promise of “full co-operation” looks darkly comical in retrospect.

Surely, for instance, full co-operation would require at least a willingnes­s to meet. Yet for over a year, Harper has refused to rendezvous with the premier of Ontario, the head of Canada’s second largest government, despite repeated verbal and written pleas from both Kathleen Wynne and her cabinet. Nor has he convened a first ministers meeting since 2009, leaving the premiers to sort out the future of health care, pensions, job grants and other intergover­nmental issues with an empty chair at the head of the table.

The political reasons for not attending these meetings are obvious. Premiers do tend to gang up on prime ministers. But Harper’s absenteeis­m also reflects his government’s oft-expressed view of the federal role in areas of provincial jurisdicti­on: Namely, there is none.

So, for instance, the federal government has disowned any responsibi­lity for shaping our health system. Earlier this year, the 10-year, $41billion health accord signed by Paul Martin’s Liberals and the provinces expired. Rather than renegotiat­e the deal, Ottawa promised to continue to increase transfers — though at a lower level after 2017 — while eliminatin­g all conditions. And it arrived at its new funding formula unilateral­ly, without consulting with the provinces.

The problem is that the continued effectiven­ess of medicare depends on federal leadership. Only Ottawa can establish pan-Canadian standards that ensure provinces aren’t pitted against each other. Otherwise, any jurisdicti­on that might choose to privatize, for instance, would very likely siphon talent from the other provinces. Moreover, medicare will have to be reformed to keep pace with medical and demographi­c change, lest quality erode. If a central government doesn’t oversee that change, then the provinces and territorie­s will — in13 different directions, resulting not only in fragmentat­ion but profound inequities.

Social policy, too, has been reshaped by the government’s propensity for federal devolution. The Tories’ decision in 2006 to cancel the child-care agreements with every province, to take the most obvious example, left any future arrangemen­ts to the provinces themselves. That’s well and good, unless we see child care as an essential service to which all Canadians deserve comparable access.

The federal spending power — Ottawa’s ability to influence provincial policy through conditiona­l funding — must be deployed sparingly and carefully. When misused, it allows federal government­s to overpower provincial expertise and it inevitably causes some confusion about which government is accountabl­e for what.

But if we believe that some things — say, child care, home care, pharmacare, medicare, income security — are so fundamenta­l to citizenshi­p that they should be guaranteed for all Canadians, wherever they live, Ottawa has a crucial role to play. Without federal leadership we would not have medicare. Nor a social safety net that spans the nation.

There’s no doubt that building those big programs was a difficult and messy enterprise. And by disentangl­ing Ottawa from social and health policy, the Tories may well be making matters neater. They are doing this without much fanfare, quietly and incrementa­lly — often simply by not acting — and thus largely without debate or public considerat­ion of the consequenc­es.

Perhaps we could live with some messiness if we understood that the alternativ­e is the erosion of our shared citizenshi­p.

In 2014, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservati­ve government continued their quiet devolution

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