Memo to premiers: Forget Harper and fix the economy
TheStar.com – news/Canada/politics
November 23, 2012. By Thomas Walkom, National Affairs Columnist
Canada’s premiers may want Stephen Harper to help them grapple with the struggling economy. But they don’t need him.
Provincial governments are big players on their own: far bigger than Ottawa. As a group, they collect more in taxes than the federal government. They spend accordingly.
So if they want to do something about the country’s jobless rate, they’ve got the fiscal clout to act — with or without the approval of the prime minister.
Unfortunately, they didn’t take full advantage of this opportunity at their just-completed Halifax meeting.
In fact, Ontario — with its obsession to eliminate the provincial government deficit — is going in precisely the wrong direction.
This is not to say that the meeting, which ended Friday afternoon, was fruitless.
True, Harper declined the premiers’ invitation to attend. So did Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.
But Quebec’s Pauline Marois and Alberta’s Alison Redford did get together to talk about an energy link between their two provinces, presumably an oil pipeline.
Canadian self-sufficiency in oil and gas fell out of favour in the free-trade era. It is back on the agenda now, in part because Alberta’s biggest customer — the U.S. — is on its way to becoming a petroleum exporter.
The provinces also agreed that infrastructure investment is a good idea, although they seem to want Ottawa to take the lead.
And they made the usual noises about the need for education and training.
But premiers seem to think they have no particular control over the direction of the national economy.
True, they don’t determine monetary and interest-rate policy. The Bank of Canada, which is a federal institution, does that.
But with interest rates near zero, the central bank has done virtually all it can to encourage job growth. It needs help. And here’s where provincial governments could play a useful role.
First, they have to forget about Harper. Premiers can complain all they want, but this prime minister isn’t going to meet with them collectively.
The premiers know, however, that Ottawa has scaled back its deficit reduction plans because of the shaky world economy.
There is no reason why their governments can’t do the same. Instead of taking money from the economy, provinces like Ontario should be making every effort to put more in.
Second, the provinces can make a start at fixing Canada’s flawed Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Under the Harper Conservatives, this once modest program has ballooned into a parallel immigration system — except that temporary workers, unlike regular immigrants, have virtually no rights.
Ottawa’s decision to let a British Columbia company hire temporary, low-wage Chinese coal miners at a time of high national unemployment only highlights the absurdity of the program.
Constitutionally, provinces share jurisdiction over immigration with Ottawa. They could exercise this jurisdiction by paying less attention to local employers seeking cheap labour — which, if I understand Friday’s communiqué correctly, seems to be their current focus — and more to the needs of jobless Canadians.
I reckon that more than a few unemployed Ontario miners, for instance, would be happy to work in B.C.
More to the point, provincial governments could require employers to train Canadians before seeking skilled temporary foreign workers. This could obviate the supposed need from doughnut shops and low-wage factories to bring in help from abroad.
These are just a couple of areas where provincial governments can act for the economic benefit of their citizens. There are more, ranging from pension reform to climate change.
It might be better if the prime minister were involved. But he’s not essential.
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