Provinces fill void left by Ottawa – comment – Provinces fill void left by Ottawa
March 05, 2008
Carol Goar

At times like this, the virtues of federalism outweigh the frustrations.

For the past five years, Canadians have waited in vain for leadership from Ottawa. Paul Martin had plenty of ideas, but lacked the ability to follow through on them. Stephen Harper believes in small government and big tax cuts.

But as the federal government’s role in shaping public policy has shrunk, the provinces have become bolder and more creative.

Canadians may not be moving ahead together, but at least they’re moving ahead.

It took a while for the shift to occur. Initially, most of the premiers railed at Ottawa for abdicating its responsibility. They demanded national action on everything from climate change to poverty reduction. That is still going on.

But something else is happening. Provincial governments are tackling problems on their own. They have become Canada’s groundbreakers.

• Take British Columbia. It just introduced North America’s first consumer-based carbon tax last month.

Environmentalists had urged Ottawa to take the lead for years. But both the Liberals and Conservatives considered a carbon tax too risky. Both professed deep concern about climate change, then proceeded to outline distant targets, buttressed by timid programs.

So B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell took the lead.

• Take Alberta. It has found a way to strengthen and streamline medicare from within.

While Martin spent $41 billion on a “health-care fix for a generation” and Harper staked his electoral fortunes on medical wait time guarantees, the Alberta Bone and Joint Institute – a coalition of doctors, regional health authorities, universities and the provincial government – developed a practical plan to cut patient waiting times for hip and knee replacements by 87 per cent.

The model, which involves no privatization, can be applied to other procedures.

• Take Manitoba. It was the first government to understand that building strong cities is in everybody’s interest.

While Martin conjured up images of Canada as a great urban nation and Harper retreated from any involvement in municipal affairs, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer provided his province’s municipalities with steady and predictable funding. He assured them 3 cents a litre of the fuel tax and a share of corporate and personal income tax revenue.

Other governments (not Harper’s) are cautiously following suit.

• Take Ontario. It is piecing together a strategy to modernize its battered manufacturing sector and help workers adjust.

When the first distress signals appeared, Martin responded with one-off grants. As the damage spread, Harper set up a $1 billion relief fund for workers in hard-hit communities (Ontario gets $350 million over three years) and cut corporate taxes. But it was left to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose resources are limited, to make strategic investments in clean automotive technology, new products and job-creating industries.

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty lambasted the premier for “a lack of innovation, a lack of foresight and a lack of leadership.”

• Take Quebec. It has been the trailblazer on affordable child care, poverty reduction and new forms of enterprise that use market principles to achieve social goals.

Even without the policy vacuum in Ottawa, the province would have carved out a distinct path, as it has done for 40 years. But the absence of federal activity gave it extraordinary latitude to strike out on its own.

• Take Nova Scotia. It has expanded its approach to health care to address the root causes of illness – poverty, chronic unemployment, substandard housing, poor nutrition – and shift resources from tending the sick to keeping people well.

Policy-makers have known how to prevent poor health for a long time. The Nova Scotia government has made the investment to do it.

These are just a few of the spurts of progress taking place across the land.

It would be better if they were part of a national vision. It would be fairer if all parts of the country could afford to innovate and experiment.

But Confederation, for all its strains and sniping, is resilient. When one level of government withdraws from people’s lives, the other steps in.

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