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Canadian Politics: The Feds And The Provinces

As we approach the fourth anniversary of Canada's newest version of a central government, Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada's minority government, it's about time for the assessments to start rolling in. They've delivered their first budget, established the ground rules that they want to play by, and have started to put their stamp on policy.

That's usually more then enough for anybody to start either composing a hatchet job or singing their praises. We will probably hear the usual stuff about betrayal of public trust from one side and sticking to your guns on the other side. Strong leadership comments will be offset by snide remarks about dictatorial aspirations, as commentators according to their political stripe will let their feelings flow.

I wonder though if there is a story line that might get lost in all the hubbub so I thought I'd get my two cents in now before the opportunity passes. One of the hallmarks of previous the previous Liberal government was there commitment to a strong central government. In Canada there has always been a very clear delineation of what comes under provincial jurisdiction, and what's federal.

It was long claimed by provinces of various political inclinations that the federal Liberals were always encroaching upon provincial matters and not respecting their autonomy as was required by law. The new Conservative Party government promised that they would begin a new era of co-operation with the provinces, heralding a new definition of Canadian federalism.

This is music to the ears of the sovereignty movement in Quebec, and the oil barons of Alberta. The Alberta government doesn't want to have to hand over any more of their oil revenues then they have to, while Quebec nationalists are always on the lookout for any power they can grab to give them that little bit more of control over the lives of people in their province.

For the Conservative Party it ensures them the support of the Bloc Quebecois (Quebec nationalists) party on key votes in the house of commons that would other wise be defeated, and allows them to chalk up brownie points amongst their biggest supporters. I wouldn't be surprised if over half of the current Federal Cabinet were at one time or another Alberta Conservatives.

Interestingly enough though, for all their talk about provincial rights a couple of things have happened in the past week that's making it look like when things come down to the nitty-gritty this government doesn't seem much different from any of it's predecessors. Two announcements in the last forty-eight hours by provincial representatives show that the Conservatives are more than willing to ignore the provinces when it suits them.

The Kelowna accord that was struck between provincial leaders and the previous federal government was to be the means to finally giving the native communities of Canada the opportunity to dig out from under decades of abuse, poverty, and the distinction of being the model for the apartheid used in South Africa. (It was after seeing our reserve system that a delegation from the former South African government conceived the concept of homelands as a means of confining people to certain areas of the country) The five year plan, which was have to begun implementation with this past budget, and would have seen the injection of $5.1 billion dollars into developing a real infrastructure of roads, housing, and education on the reserves across Canada, and included provisions for non reserve natives, metis, and Inuit.

When the government budget was delivered last month and the monies announced for the aboriginal community was significantly less then what was called for by the Kelowna accord, it was feared that the deal was dead in the water. Government talk about the need to reassess the program did nothing to allay those fears.

But some new hope was breathed into the deal yesterday when Western provincial leaders went into their annual meeting calling on the government to fulfill their obligations to the native communities. The fact that this was the Western leaders, who historically are both more reticent when it comes to aboriginal issues then their Eastern counterparts, and more supportive of the Conservative government, makes it all the more significant.

Another sign of how the Conservatives are trying to force their agenda on the provinces is of course their concept of a day care package. While the previous administration had spent a great deal of energy travelling from province to province negotiating individual deals until there was a package that all could agree upon, and that would have assisted those most in need in obtaining day care, the new government has unilaterally scrapped the deal and imposed its own without any consultation

After a meeting with Social Development Minister Diane Finley provincial ministers responsible for child care were saying that the government has overstepped its jurisdiction by it's actions.

While the previous government's program had funds going to the provinces to allow them to pay for their programming, and each province put together programming that was specific to their needs this agreement bypasses any assessment of provincial needs and aims to give money to suppliers to create spaces, and offer parents up to a $100.00 a month tax credit per child to help offset the costs involved.

In a report produced earlier it was shown that the only people who are going to be able to qualify for that full amount are the people who need it the least (married couples with a stay at home parent with an income of $170,000 per annum) you have to wonder about the Conservative party's statement about ensuring "parents have choices". I know that the provinces aren't really standing up to the federal government because of the issue, it's all just part of the ongoing turf war, but a least they're right for the wrong reason, which is sometimes the best you can hope for from any government.

Of course the federal government has no problems allowing the provinces to act independently whenever they want, just don't expect any financial assistance. Now that the Conservatives have announced that they are going to be looking into alternatives to meeting Canada's commitment to the Kyoto accord (interesting how it took an act of parliament to ratify the agreement in the first place, but the new government can cancel it without consulting parliament) the Quebec government has said they will try and meet the standards on their own. The Prime Minister didn't have a problem with that but told them not to expect any monetary help.

Of course everything comes down to money in the end doesn't it? Currently the biggest bone of contention between the Conservative government and all the provinces are the two methods of supplying funds to provincial governments aside from their own tax bases. Those are equalization payments and transfer payments.

Transfer payments are each provinces share of the federal tax pie to help them pay for federally mandated programming like Health, Education, and other social welfare infrastructures. Equalization payments are what each province pays out to their weaker sisters in order to share out the fruits of the national economy amongst the have-nots.

Quite the sizeable rift is starting to between provinces who earn substantial amounts from natural resources and those who don't. Alberta and Ontario, big earners, are demanding that these monies be excluded from the equalization process, and it looks like the federal government is listening. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty went on record saying that the government is inclined to agree with that attitude. Of course what does this mean for provinces without any big share of the natural resource pie? It also raises the question as to what constitutes a natural resource? Can Quebec claim the money it makes selling hydroelectric power across North America as natural resource income?

The current answer to that question is no. Which means that heading into this weeks First Ministers meetings there's bound to be a lot of scurrying around in the back rooms as the federal people try and placate their provincial counterparts so that nobody raises a stink in public. It's still hard to see how the Conservative Party is going to keep everybody happy this time round. Jurisdiction is one thing, the provinces may bend a little here and there, but money is another issue altogether and could cause the most serious inter government problem yet for the new government.

When running for election the Conservative Party promised a whole new era of inter-provincial relations, but through a combination of their own stubbornness and politics as usual in Canada everything seems to be about the same as it was before. This should be a very interesting First Minister's meeting this week.

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