Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Dion Needs New Take on Federalism

Federalism is not a wedge issue, it’s the foundation of our country

According to John Ivison, Liberal leader Stephane Dion may be looking to the concept of federalism in his continual search for wedge issues to divide Canadians.

This is, quite simply, bad news for Canada.

According to Ivison, the issue is coming down to a conflict between two visions of federalism: Paul Martin’s vision of assymetrical federalism, under which Quebec would be afforded powers and privileges not afforded to Canada’s other provinces, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of open federalism, under which the jurisdictions of the federal and provincial governments are defined and defended.

The disagreement is fairly simple: Stephen Harper believes the spending and legislating powers of the federal government should be both limited and enshrined, while Stephan Dion believes they should be limitless.

Each side actually has a case. Harper’s belief in defending provincial powers from federal encroachments actually has historical foundations, dating back to the establishment of the country, and the conflict between John A MacDonald and various provincial premiers (spearheaded by Ontario) over various points of conflict.

Yet Stephane Dion has a fair case as well. There always remains the possibility that the federal government may need to step in and establish necessary programs in provinces that are unwilling to establish them on their own, or act in order to prevent the citizens of some provinces from being unduly disadvantaged.

Enshrined federal spending powers laced with contingency clauses seems like a reasonable compromise between the two views.

But this has little to do with symmetrical or assymetrical federalism.

The fact is that federalism cannot be assymetrical and also be just. Not only would assymetrical federalism entrench inequality (and, thus, injustice) in the short term, but it would commit us to that inequality and injustice in the long term. Worse yet, it would establish it as a foundation upon which the country is established.

Assymetrical federalism represents the same threat to Canadian unity as any coercive policy of official bilingualism ever could. Just as many French Canadian scholars were noted to remark with glee (perhaps naively) how official bilingualism could have been used to transform Canada as whole into a French state (at least as acknowledged by Peter Brimelow), assymetrical federalism represents a tool by which extreme Quebecois nationalists could mould Quebec into an increasingly exclusive enclave, while possessing a disproportionate amount of influence over the rest of the country. Assymetrical federalism may not necessarily transform Quebec into a sovereign state nearly by default, but it will certainly do the next best thing.

The granting of such powers to Quebec would only be tenable under circumstances in which those powers are also extended to the other provinces. Then again, that isn’t assymetrical federalism. That would be symmetrical.

Yet the granting of additional powers to, for example, western provinces has rarely been considered seriously because those in power have rarely considered western separatism to be as threatening as Quebec separatism. On the same not, those men have disproportionately tended to be French-Canadian. One may make of that what they will.

If Stephane Dion is truly prepared to depart from his party’s flirtations with assymetrical federalism, as Ivison has suggested, this is a good thing. But turning to the very foundations of Canada as a wedge issue is not.

It shouldn’t be suggested that Dion should consider federalism topica non grata, but rather that he should engage that topic in a responsible, collaborative manner, not a divisive one.

Any discussion of federalism should seek to unite Canadians, not divide them. There are simply some ways in which a country cannot be divided and still remain whole. This is one of them.

The fact is that no politician can reasonably expect to politicize the very concept on which the country was established without risking the break-up of the country. It is in this sense that Dion’s reliance on divisive issues may finally bear fruit, but it will be very bitter fruit, indeed.

The nature of Stephane Dion's take on federalism is bad news for Canada.

1 comment:

  1. In reading this, I found myself reflecting on just how obvious Dion's behaviour is.

    Yes, it is certainly part of the Liberal heritage from Trudeau onward that Federal money should be used to force the provinces to act in ways those in Ottawa want. So his defence of the notion that Ottawa "ought to be able to do so" is in line with those proclivities. (Did the Liberals ever forgive Pearson for allowing the Québec Pension Plan to exist?)

    That he sees this as a wedge issue to bring home additional seats in certain regions (probably, the Maritimes and Ontario, although he may have his eye on Manitoba and Saskatchewan as well), though, is - in addition to be appalling (imagine, playing with the nation's future in such a cavalier manner! - also absolutely in line with Liberal proclivities.

    "Say anything, do anything, to gain and keep power." This is Liberal mother's milk, the principle of principles (the one that allows them to set aside any and all other principles on an "as needed" basis), the master truth of relativity, the sole absolute.

    Stéphane Dion certainly joined the appropriate party for his beliefs.

    Now, if Taliban Jack can get it together and recognize the opening, the Prime Minister could hit this on one side as "continuing the debasement of the separation of authority between the federal government and the provinces" and use the Liberal record to show how their initiatives basically just slopped money everywhere with no result, the NDP leader could hit him on the other side for his "unwillingness to recognize how the needs of ordinary Canadians (grimace) from one part of the country to another differ and thus he would marginalize Québec for electoral gain" (or some such speech) and ...

    ... Dion and the Bloc end up as kissing cousins, both willing, in their own way, to impose their final solutions on Canada.

    Since le Citoyen does seem to suffer from an acute case of athlete's tongue, I'd say he should be encouraged to continue on this track.

    And when he says "that's not fair ... I'm putting my foot down" we can all shout out, left and right:

    "Suit yourself! It's your lip!"


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