Sat 14 May 2005
Notes for Remarks to the ADM Forum
Ottawa, May 11, 2005
By Allan R. Gregg
Over the course of the next few hours, we will undoubtedly hear a lot of talk about section 93 and 94 of the Constitution, “Orphans of Confederation”, fiscal imbalances and probably even the dreaded “asymmetrical federalism”.
Before we settle comfortably in, deciding what form of federalism best fits modern-day Canada, it may be wise to take a step further back and begin by re-examining why we even have a central government.
It starts, of course, with a tacit recognition that we are better served acting as citizens than as individuals – that our goals are better pursued as a group, than alone, in isolation. As part of that tacit recognition, we also freely give up some of our unbridled freedom for stability and order. We erect a stop sign, knowing it delays our arrival to our destination, in exchange for the comfort of knowing we are reducing the risk of head-on collisions. Group activity is also more efficient – we can do things together than we cannot do alone. Less recognized but no less important, we come to appreciate that membership in a group has a ennobling effect on the individual – our adherence to the rules necessary to function as part of a group forms the foundation of citizenship.
Out of citizenship and the mutual adherence to common rules comes a sense of bond – that as individuals we share common goals, values and creed. The geographic extent of this commonality, in turn, defines the boundaries of a nation. In the same way we determine that we are better off as part of group than as individuals, we decide that the group has sufficient cohesion across a geographical expanse that our collective destiny can best be pursued within those boundaries.
The state, of course, is the vehicle we choose to chart that destiny. It exists to protect the territorial sovereignty of the nation and to balance the individual’s lust for freedom with the groups need for equality. But the threats to sovereignty, freedom and equality emanate not merely from outside of the group but also from within. Even emboldened with a common sense of creed and purpose, nations are rarely – and certainly Canada has never been – homogeneous. Loyalties to tribe, ethnic ancestry, language, religious affiliation and region endure within the nation and it falls to the state to provide the compelling evidence that these should be sublimated to the larger good. Within a heterogeneous, pluralistic nation however, the state must also ensure that this compelling evidence encompasses and does not exclude those tribes, ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional groups who make up the nation – that the rights and interests of the minority are reflected in and will not be trammeled by the needs and aspirations of the majority.
In this way, the state – and its apparatus, the central government – gives structure and voice to the more unstructured and voiceless concept of nation. It recognizes our willingness to trade off some measure of liberty for stability; gives meaning to citizenship; balances the individuals desire for freedom with the groups need for equality; embodies and expresses a common sense of creed and values, all the while protecting the rights of minorities. And at the end of the day, by performing these functions, the ultimate responsibility of the central government is to keep the nation together.
I raise these points today, not because there is an need for a refresher course in political philosophy 101 but to remind us – as we consider what is the most appropriate role for our Central government today – what we stand to lose if we get it wrong.
And here I think it becomes necessary to look at the centrifugal forces at work in Canada today that pose a threat to our coherence as a nation.
Free Trade has realigned our national commerce from an East-West to a North-South focus, the result of which has been the evolution of increasingly distinctive and dissimilar regional economies. In 1989, only Newfoundland exported significantly more of its products to the United States than to the rest of Canada. By 2001 every province but Manitoba had a bigger trade balance with the United States than with their sister provinces. In the case of Ontario and British Columbia, trade with the United States doubled as a percentage of their total. Similarly, in 1989 Quebec exported 16% percent of its output to the United States and by 2001 it had increased to 34%, far outstripping the percentage of goods it was shipping to the rest of Canada.
This continuing activity obviously makes east-west links ever more tenuous; reduces the interdependence and need for co-ordinated and complementary trade practices amongst the provinces; and, as competitors in the scramble for more North-South commerce, aligns their interests independently, more often than with, one another.
Cascading voter cynicism has weakened our national political institutions and eroded their ability to serve as the “grand aggregators” of the public interest.
In the miasma of distain for our elected leaders we seem to have forgotten that political parties are a central part of civil society. These – essentially volunteer — organizations exist as a “crucible of consensus”; their purpose to accommodate broad differences in the population so that diverse groups can broker their divergent claims and participate in civic affairs as part of and from within a national institution, rather than from the outside, as a special or single interest group.
The loss of faith in political authority has driven citizens away from direct partisan involvement. Youth activists eschew parliament, party and politics and instead strive for “immediate usefulness” by channeling their activism into NGOs and community groups. The fragmentation of our party system over the last decade and a half similarly reflects the growing view that regional interests can be better served by political parties dedicated to regional rather than national causes.
Not unrelated to this, we are also witnessing a growing pattern of civic disengagement. The tip of this iceberg is represented by the lowest levels of voter turnout we have experienced in Canadian history. Communitarian researchers have explored the base of the iceberg and documented our growing tendency to “bowl alone”. Their findings show that while we may be bowling as much as ever, the number of bowling leagues have decreased by 40% over the last two decades. So too has our involvement in parent-teacher associations, our propensity to have neighbours over to dinner and virtually any other kind of community-based bridging and bonding activity that you would care to examine. The price we pay for this modern way of life is a social capital deficit — a breakdown of trust and the further hollowing out of democratic institutions.
Yet a fourth factor that creates a constant strain on our national fabric – and one it seems increasingly politically incorrect to even mention – is the very nature of the federalist system we chose to govern our affairs. By granting parallel sovereignty, in different – and sometimes overlapping — areas of jurisdiction to both the provinces and central government, we enshrine a didactic between the part and the whole. High oil prices are good for Alberta and Saskatchewan and bad for Ontario. Agricultural subsidies help more rurally populated provinces and hurt the more urban ones. And so on.
Provinces, by definition – because of their sovereign powers within federalism and by the very the population that they serve – exist to advance the cause of the part; and if that cause is at odds with another part or even the whole, they are doing nothing other than fulfilling their mandate when they preach for their own parish. Now some may say that this is a creative tension that makes Canada the great country that it is; or that because of the vast expanse and diversity of our nation this is the only system that will work – and they would be right. But the fact remains… creative or not, necessary or not, a tension is still a tension.
These forces – North-South Commerce; weakened political institutions; withering civic virtue; and an inherently provincialist federalism — all exist regardless of the role we prescribe for our central government. When considering the appropriate role for the central government therefore it strikes me the first question is … does our national government have the power, authority, will and legitimacy to stand up to these forces?
As I’m sure some of you are aware, I voiced some misgivings about the recent Health Accord and raised concerns about the posture of our federal government in those dealings.
Since then, some have protested my point-of view and asked …”What’s can be inherently wrong with redressing a fiscal imbalance; or allowing provinces to tailor programs to meet their regional needs; or to receive their share of taxes when they have determined that these programs don’t serve their needs at all; or even to be given the authority to be party to international agreements that impact on areas of provincial jurisdiction?” Are these not all reasonable and pragmatic responses to a nation that sprawls across 8,000 kilometers of varied terrain, is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, and has strong regional economies that are evolving along unique and often divergent paths?
My answer goes back to the very first principles I have raised today concerning the base rationale as to why our central government exists; and it is that Canada’s very vastness, diversity and divergence requires a federal government that has the power and wherewithal to bridge these difference, define common ground and hold the sum of the parts together as a whole. Not only does this ensure that the public good takes precedence over private need, it is also the basis upon which nations have the moral authority to represent all of its citizens, domestically and internationally. When the federal government cedes this responsibility and actually encourages allegiances to devolve to vested and local interests, it is only a matter of time before the state loses that moral authority.
My concern was not that Quebec was allowed to sign a separate side deal – “parallelism” has become the orthodoxy in Quebec for all parties in that province for every twenty years. My concern is that when Quebec refused to be party to national programs and agreements in the past, it was always viewed as a source of failure, to be remedied. This was lauded as a success to be repeated. The celebration was then accompanied by an invitation not just to Quebec but for any and all of the other provinces and territories to opt out of future national programs as well.
Given the mandate of provinces to represent their constituents – and if need be, only their constituents – this is an invitation for an endless cycle of federal-provincial blackmail, with Quebec’s propensity for parallelism spreading like a virus across the nation.
If the proof rests in the pudding, then the most compelling evidence that federal-provincial relations have changed and are no longer “mainstream”, screams out in the headlines since the Accord was signed. Ottawa’s plans for a coast-to-coast child care policy appear to have been scuppered because the provinces now refuse to acquiesce to any, “one size fits all” national program. Danny Williams has re-cut Newfoundland’s and Nova Scotia’s off shore deal. Arguably the most federalist Premier in Canada, Saskatchewan’s Lorne Calvert, has demanded that his royalty arrangement should be similarly readjusted. British Columbia quickly threw their hand up and signaled “me too”. Prince Edward Island even entered the fray, suggesting the novel idea that agriculture, after all, is a natural resource and it too should be excluded from calculations in transfer payments. And for the first time in modern memory, we have an Ontario government grimacing over the burden of paying equalization payments to Canada’s have-not provinces.
The fact is that a major part of the Canadian identity has been forged not in the acts of great men or women or even by heroic events of history, but in national public policy. Ask Canadians what makes Canada one of the best countries in the world in which to live and the dominant response will be …”our health care system”. These national initiatives are revered not for their efficiency but for the values they embrace. Canadians see their character reflected in the mirror of national initiatives. While the view is far from unanimous, our refusal to participate in the war in Iraq, our willingness to decriminalize marijuana, to sanction same sex marriage, are all seen as similar expressions of our national distinctiveness.
When we tell Canadians that their interests are best served by their provinces; that only they can tailor programs to fit their needs; we are saying that the interests and needs of Canadians are at odds with one another – that what is good for an Ontarian will not work for a British Columbian. This is the message we have been sending to Quebeckers for almost a quarter century. Yet even in this province a mere 22% consider themselves to be Quebeckers only. The vast majority continue to report at least some if not an equal or greater fealty to the Canada.
Quebec is a nation – that debate is over. The question before us now is if that nation requires its own state to express and protect its sovereignty. That is the immediate challenge of our central government. And I submit to you that challenge will not be met by Canada continuing to cede their interests to the provincial government; to acknowledge that they are unable and only the province can advance the cause of Quebeckers. And it certainly will not be met by telling the rest of Canada they too are so intrinsically distinct, national priorities and programs do not apply them — that the children of Newfoundland acquire language or have early development needs that are different from British Columbians; or that pain is so regionally indigenous in Alberta that hips must be replaced differently than in Nova Scotia.
To the contrary; there is an argument that the best defense of federalism is to demonstrate that there are policies and programs that serve all Canadians and that the central government – the only order that represents all Canadians – is uniquely and best able to set that agenda and establish those standards.
I am not a constitutional expert. But I can tell you as a pollster, Canadians consider themselves a unique people; they support national standards and they value national programs.
I can also tell you that you do not have to be a constitutional expert to know that John A. MacDonald, Charles Tupper, Hector Langevin and the other framers of the Constitution were neither deities nor clairvoyants; that they could never have envisioned how matters, which at the time were of “local and private nature” such as health care, education, and welfare, would come to matter to Canadians – and indeed shape our very national identity — more than the nebulous or distant prerogatives of the federal government. Nor how municipalities — the “creatures of the provinces” – would become home to 80% of Canadians and the engines driving economic growth in the 21st Century.
Although the division of powers was codified in a written document, in the best tradition of Westminster Parliamentary Democracy, the constitution was silent on many matters that later, would be at the center of the country’s development. Not only was there no mention of political parties, the role of the Prime Minister or even the presence of a cabinet, the future practice of federal-provincial relations – in the words of Alan Carins – are governed by a “living Constitution” which can evolve and change organically. As a consequence, the strength, powers and authority of the two levels of government are not – and were never meant to be codified for all eternity – but have ebbed and flowed over time and been modified as much by convention and necessity as by legal precedent.
The questions before us today are too important to be solved by ad hocery or stealth. We should not be afraid of debate. We should not be afraid of constitutional reform. In fact, perhaps the time has come when we should launch a new Rowell-Sirois Commission to look at not just the division of powers but the actual problems facing a modern day Canada and from there, to consider which order of government is best suited – alone or in tandem – to manage them. And most importantly, we should not be afraid to be bold as we set about defining a new and vibrant role for the central government in the 21st Century.