Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
September 27, 2004
Give us a vision for our country
The federal-provincial health care agreement, hammered out in Ottawa in mid-month, should again drive home the point that the centre is not holding. Canada is slowly devolving into a collection of provinces with a federal government that serves more as financial redistribution centre than a guiding light.
The provinces are happy to get together to mug Ottawa for $41 billion over the next 10 years as long as they are only loosely accountable for how the money gets spent. And the "asymmetrical federalism" evident in the special deal between Ottawa and Quebec leaves that province with virtually no accountability for how it spends its part of the lucre.
This is not a new phenomenon. Pierre Trudeau bitingly referred to Joe Clark, during the latter's brief tenure as prime minister, as "the head waiter to the provinces." But it was Trudeau's own Charter of Rights and Freedoms that ended up taking so much power away from the federal government and putting it in the hands of the Supreme Court.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, we had the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords - each of which would have given more power to the provinces - failing to become reality in no small part because they did not give enough power to the provinces.
Then, of course, there are the free trade agreements that hand some of Canada's sovereignty over to anonymous, unelected international bodies with the power to crush any trade subsidy we have created to serve the national interest.
Today, we have the odd spectacle of the federal government going, cap in hand, to the Supreme Court asking if it is pleased with the proposed federal legislation allowing same sex "marriage."
The campaign for the June federal election was a time of great sound and fury. In the prime minister's words, it was "the most important election in Canadian history." It wasn't clear at the time why Mr. Martin held such a high view of that election. It is even less clear now.
The Liberals roasted the Conservatives during that campaign for not demanding enough of the provinces in return for federal cash for health care. But in the opinion of some commentators, the Liberal government got even less accountability from the provinces this month than the Conservatives were seeking.
It was perhaps some sign of the remainder of a national purpose that at least the provincial premiers could reach an agreement among themselves and then drag the federal government into agreeing.
But, in another example of asymmetrical federalism, wealthy Alberta is already so disengaged from the process that its premier spent some of his time in Ottawa at the casino before scooting back home early to rub shoulders with his friends in the oil patch.
The question that arises from all this, of course, is 'Does Canada matter any more?'
Is there any point in having elected federal officials? And if there is a point, what are they going do beside shovel out cash to the provinces, take orders from the Supreme Court and World Trade Organization, and ensure that the Canada Pension Plan is solvent?
Things are not that bad yet. But we are well on the way.
If we are to have a vibrant country, we need more that a championship hockey team and medals at the Olympics. We need a federal government that has the authority to set and enforce national priorities. We need a federal government that not only has a vision, but also the ability to implement it. To be sure, setting that vision should not be the prerogative of the most populous provinces. But the ability to establish a national identity is ever more important when there are so many forces undermining it.
Oh Canada! We need someone to stand on guard for thee.
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