Britain: The Elephant and the Empire
France: The Sex Life of the Elephant
United States: How to Build Bigger and Better Elephants
Canada: Elephants: A Federal or Provincial Responsibility
A Federal Government That Is MIA
This background may explain the markedly different approach to federal-provincial relations that has been the hallmark of the Conservative Government under Stephen Harper. It is, quite simply, to withdraw from federal-provincial relations as much as possible and to leave the Premiers to deal on their own with issues that transcend provincial boundaries. In the more than nine years that he has been Prime Minister, Harper has never invited the Premiers to a federal-provincial meeting, nor has he ever accepted an invitation to attend one of the meetings of all Premiers.
While such an approach may be understandable, it is also misguided and harmful. There are many issues that would benefit from a Canada-wide approach, one developed through leadership provided by the federal government. The national interest is not simply the sum total of all the separate provincial interests, nor does a miss-mash of separate provincial initiatives add up to a coherent national strategy. There has been no indication, however, that the Conservative Party is interested in articulating and addressing broad national issues.
The Lack of Federal Leadership in Health Care The shortcomings of the current federal approach were brought to light in a recent report from The Advisory Panel on Healthcare Innovation that had been established by the federal government. It was given extremely narrow terms of reference to recommend innovations that would neither increase nor decrease the existing federal funding for health care. To its credit, the panel, chaired by former U of T President David Naylor, ignored this mandate, justifying its action on the grounds that Canada’s health care systems were destined to continue to decline in performance without federal action and investment (and political resolve on the part of the provinces). It recommended the creation of a Health Innovation Fund with a yearly budget of $1 billion to invest in changes to the health care system. Such changes have the potential to improve the effectiveness of the Canadian health care system while also bringing down costs over time.
The Harper Government, however, has made it clear that it has no interest in taking on any greater role with respect to health care. Nor would it ever contemplate financing a $1 billion a year Health Innovation Fund. To the contrary, it has already announced that beginning in 2017-2018 it will reduce Ottawa’s annual health care transfers to the provinces from their current 6% annual increase to between 3% and 3.5%, depending on economic growth. In an effort to draw as little attention as possible to this unwelcome Advisory Panel report, the news conference that had been scheduled on July 14 in conjunction with the report’s release was cancelled the day before by the PMO and the report was instead placed at the Health Canada website without comment on the Friday afternoon of that week.
The Missing Federal Role in Environmental Matters
The Conservative Government is loathe to acknowledge that there is anything called climate change and it has steadfastly declined to provide any kind of leadership role with respect to protection of the environment. Once well respected internationally, Canada has become an outlier for its refusal to support multi-lateral initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. Instead, the government has focused on the expansion of the oil-sands development in Northern Alberta – a preoccupation insensitive to environmental concerns and also misguided in light of the recent collapse in world oil prices.
Provinces, and even local governments, have stepped into the vacuum at the centre and have launched various programs that attempt to address environmental concerns. British Columbia has had a carbon tax for several years, and similar initiatives have been introduced in Quebec, Alberta, and most recently Ontario. A perusal of Municipal World issues of recent years reveals many municipalities making an effort to support the environment. For example, Sault Ste. Marie has been attempting to become the alternative energy capital of North America, Markham has a zero waste initiative, York Region has a strategic energy plan, and Kingston has a community sustainability plan.
The Obstructionist Federal Role in Pensions
The results of various studies indicate that Canadians are not saving enough for their retirement years. Many private pension plans have proven to be unreliable in the face of severe economic downturns. Growing calls for an expanded Canadian Pension Plan have been rejected by the Conservative Government. In response, Ontario Liberals campaigned on the establishment of an Ontario Retirement Pension Plan and won election with a strong majority in June 2014. The benefits of administering this new plan by piggy-backing on the federal collection system are obvious and such an arrangement could normally be expected. Indeed, the Harper Government had long encouraged Ontario to join roll its PST into a Harmonized Sales Tax to reduce costs and simplify paperwork for business. Apparently federal and Ontario officials did have some discussions about how to collaborate again in streamlining implementation of Ontario’s new Pension Plan.
Recently, however, the Conservative Government announced that it would refuse to help in any way with the administration of the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, claiming that the plan would take money from workers and their families, kill jobs, and damage the economy. A letter from the federal Minister of Finance refused help with any legislative changes that would allow the Ontario Plan to be treated like the Canada Pension Plan for tax purposes, particularly with respect to RRSP contribution limits. Nor will the federal level collect pension deductions on Ontario’s behalf or provide any information in connection with its new pension plan.
Ironically, the net result of this extremely partisan and petty action is to increase taxpayer costs (because of the duplication of collection machinery) and to increase accounting and compliance costs for business – the very consequences that the Harper Conservatives supposedly deplore. In this particularly striking example, the federal government doesn’t just fail to work with provincial governments but actively seeks to thwart provincial initiatives that were only launched (by Ontario) because the federal level refused to consider any expansion of the Canada Pension Plan.
In light of examples like this, it seems reasonable to conclude that Stephen Harper is – to use an expression much heard of late – “just not ready” to provide leadership within a federal system of government.