Meech Lake foes won the battle, lost the war

TheStar.com – news/canada/politics
Published On Wed Jun 29 2011.   By Chantal Hébert, National Columnist – Ottawa

When he stood up in the National Assembly to comment on the demise of the Meech Lake Accord in June 1990, then-Quebec premier Robert Bourassa could not have imagined that two decades later, one of his successors would be negotiating the social transfer for health care one-on-one with the prime minister of the day.

Nor could Bourassa have predicted that Quebec would spread its international wings to stake out positions independent and, sometimes, different from the federal government on issues as wide ranging as trade and climate change . . . and that the other premiers would follow suit.

The risk that the accord negotiated by Brian Mulroney at Meech Lake would neuter future federal governments was uppermost in the arguments of its vocal opponents, with the defence of provincial equality coming a close second.

Two decades later, it seems that in winning the battle, the Meech detractors lost the war.

Not only did the demise of the accord not prevent power from shifting from Ottawa to the provinces but the notion of provincial equality accelerated the movement.

The irony is that it was under the rule of the federal party that most viscerally opposed Meech that the current devolution was set in motion.

Over the second half of Jean Chrétien’s tenure, billions of federal surplus revenues were transferred to the provinces and/or spent on tax cuts. With that money went the federal capacity of initiate a top-down expansion of Canada’s social infrastructure.

In Chrétien’s wake, Paul Martin negotiated separate child-care funding agreements with each province. In the name of asymmetrical federalism, he offered Quebec different modalities in the 2004 Health Accord.

Martin did not invent that concept. It had enjoyed a golden age in the 1960s. But he gave it new life at a time of rising interest among the provinces in pursuing it for themselves.

Today, Stephen Harper is poised to rush through the door that Martin pried open in 2004

When the Health Accord runs out in 2014, the Prime Minister has promised to negotiate a separate agreement with Quebec.

Depending on the outcome of next fall’s multiple provincial elections, other premiers could seek the same treatment.

Looking back on his years in the federal-provincial fray, former British Columbia premier Gordon Campbell notes that Quebec has often acted as a trail-blazer for the other provinces.

In the past, they have sometimes been held back by the perception that a less-than-omnipresent federal government could play into the sovereignist strategy.

The latest developments in Quebec have largely eliminated that risk.

The trend to federal devolution has even convinced some past advocates of Senate reform that the upper house — as a chamber for the provinces — has become redundant.

“The Liberals, under both Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, devolved so much power and funding to the provinces that they are now strong enough to protect their regional interests. The provinces are where the action is,” Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall told The Globe and Maillast week.

Those who would go back to the barricades to restore the former leading role of the federal government have lost some key allies along the way.

In the future, the federal NDP will have to conciliate its ideological preference for a take-charge federal government with the strong autonomous streak of its new Quebec constituency.

In the face of rising western Canada influence, Ontario no longer equates its interest with the national interest in the way that it did two decades ago.

Premier Dalton McGuinty is the tallest Liberal left standing in the wake of last month’s federal election. In 2008, he signed an agreement with Quebec to pursue a common agenda on climate change and free trade with the European Union.

At the time, McGuinty was asked whether that agreement did not aim to reduce Harper to the role of “headwaiter for the provinces,” a phrase coined by Pierre Trudeau to ridicule then-Tory leader Joe Clark’s more flexible approach to federal-provincial relations.

“He’s not in the restaurant . . . and we’re not looking for him,” McGuinty replied about the Prime Minister.

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