Friday, January 27, 2006

Federalism and Public Policy I: Respecting Federal Jurisdiction

The newly-elected 39th Parliament is brimming with new potential political and policy dynamics that could have far-reaching consequences for Canadians and their place in the world. For example, an interesting aspect of Stephen Harper's approach to federal-provincial relations is the idea that by showing more respect for provincial jurisdiction--i.e. by reining in the federal government's penchant for using its spending power in areas of provincial responsibility, and "disentangling" from the provinces--the feds will be able to govern more effectively within their own jurisdiction.

Mr. Harper makes a good point.

Corrections, gun control, defence (i.e. in suitable "niche" areas as arctic sovereignty, patrolling borders and coastlines, military intelligence, disaster relief, and peacekeeping), national sport and culture, research, parks, museums and heritage sites, foreign aid, transboundary (air and water) environmental issues and aboriginal policy, are all areas of federal jurisdiction that have historically been among the most neglected and ill-governed policy fields. Surely this is not what we should expect in a federation where the national level of government enjoys a perennial fiscal surplus. Whatever the political importance of healthcare and education--and they are the most important policies to Canadians--it nonetheless remains a fundamental truth that they are primarily provincial responsibilities and, as such, it is always possible for provincial governments to raise their own taxes to pay for them. No such option exists for the aforementioned items of exclusively federal jurisdiction.

In addition, a federal government that is less preoccupied with provincial social programs and their funding ought to be more capable of realizing an internationalist vision and a policy of connectedness to the world. Yet, in the election campaign, not one of the three main party leaders gave a major address on international affairs. If anything, the Conservatives were even more guilty than the Liberals and NDP of neglecting the rest of the world in their platform.

The problem: other aspects of conservative ideology and the Conservative platform, which could frustrate the potential of any new 'politics of federal jurisdiction'.

The new Conservative government should have little trouble delivering on its GST cut, its accountability agenda, and its crime bill. Opposition parties would be foolish to try to block these initiatives. It is also possible that the Bloc Quebecois could be counted upon to support the government's childcare program, but for an ironic reason: Quebec already has a full-fledged public daycare program of its own, and therefore has nothing to lose if such a program is not adopted in the rest of the country. A $1200 parental tax break could complement Quebec's policy without "interfering" in program standards or design. In other words, the Conservatives' childcare policy is consistent with their "disentanglement" agenda, and could help to consolidate Tory gains in Quebec. After that, however, things could get shaky.

For example, doing something to redress the "fiscal imbalance" between provincial spending responsibilities and federal fiscal capacities would appear to imply giving more tax room, or transfers, or jurisdiction over resources, to provincial governments. With a federal budget already strained by Liberal health care commitments and Tory election promises, this could prove unaffordable.

Try talking to Stephen Harper about how the government plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and close the gap between our Kyoto promises and our Kyoto performance, and he will likely try to change the subject to his "anti-smog strategy". That's because he apparently intends to renege on Canada's commitment to implement the Kyoto Treaty. One can question whether recognizing Quebec's cultural autonomy at UNESCO is the best way for Canada to fulfill its international role. And it is also highly doubtful that the Tories would improve upon the Liberals' performance in foreign aid, which is expected to remain well below half of our stated goal of 0.7% of GNP through 2010. Is this what will count as assertiveness from the new, unshackled federal government of the Tory future?

The Conservatives supply us with a valid premise--that disentanglement from provincial jurisdiction can "free" the federal government to do its own job better--but they appear either unable or not inclined to follow through on what such a realignment should mean for Canada's role in improving the global environment, ending global poverty, and safeguarding universal human rights. Such an epiphany may have to wait until the 40th Parliament of Canada.

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