No national standards required

NationalPost.com – National
Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010.    Jennifer Wallner, National Post

What follows is the second in a five-part series on Ontario’s changing role in the Canadian federation. The subject is the focus of the annual State of the Federation conference, which runs Nov. 19-20 in Toronto.

Canada has an organizational problem. As a federation, we have divided powers between Ottawa and the provinces. The provinces have the lion’s share of control over social policy. This should be good for Canadians. The governments that are closer to the people have the power to put in place programs suited to local needs.

But what if programs are totally different in different parts of the country? Should a sick child in Newfoundland not be able to access health care that is as good as it is in Alberta? How can we ensure a universality of programs from coast to coast?

For many Canadians, the answer lies with Ottawa. Our federal government should establish universal national standards across various policy areas that are applicable across the country. Ottawa’s abilities to impose such standards are nevertheless complicated by three fundamental realities of the Canadian federation.

First, under the laws of the country, the authority over most areas of social policy falls to the provinces. Section 92 of the Constitution entrusts provinces with the authority over health care, education, social programs and social assistance. Therefore, Ottawa is powerless to arbitrarily legislate in those areas.

Ottawa’s only source of influence is the federal purse; it can impose conditions on the provinces when grants are made. However, although the option exists, federal penalties are rarely applied.

Secondly, the diversity of the Canadian federation means that when standards are developed, they tend to be so watered down that they carry little weight. Uniform standards may also not adequately capture the different needs of the Canadian regions and even hamper the ability of provinces to tailor programs appropriately. Provincial governments are also not overly fond of following standards that they did not develop themselves. Agreement and consensus among all the players are crucial for successful intergovernmental initiatives, but consensus has often been missing when standards were ratified in the past.

Lastly, attempts to centralize policy control have often generated poor policy outcomes. For example, labour market training programs designed and operated by the federal government tend to be insufficiently responsive to regional needs.

Instead of centralization, devolution of policy and service delivery, as a recent Mowat Centre report argued, can help strengthen the Canadian federation. Should Canadians fret about the government’s inability to unilaterally impose national standards? The short answer is no.

Highly comparable social policies and programs can and do emerge across the provinces without imposition of mandatory and uniform rules. For example, provinces have managed to create strong, internationally recognized systems of public elementary and secondary schooling without federal standards. Canadians know that there is provincial accountability for education. Other areas of public policy are less clear.

What lessons can be learned from the education example? First, provinces need access to reliable and sufficient funds to act in their constitutionally-recognized policy areas. Since the 1990s, the federal government has unilaterally altered federal-provincial fiscal agreements with scant consultation with the parties affected. A renewed approach to budgetary co-ordination must be developed.

Intergovernmental organizations, like the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, can also assist. Regular interactions among federal and provincial officials is one logical approach to solving shared policy problems.

An environment of mutual respect holds the ultimate key. During a speech in 2006, the Prime Minister suggested that open federalism means benefiting from the experience and expertise that the provinces and territories can bring to the national dialogue, respecting areas of provincial authority and establishing a formal mechanism for provincial input when provincial jurisdiction is affected.

This is a compelling and meaningful roadmap for Canada’s future.

– Jennifer Wallner is assistant professor, Johnson- Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina. For more information on the State of the Federation conference, please visit stateofthefederation.ca

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