Will Cautious Stephen Harper let Wild Steve run free?

theGlobeandMail.com/news/opinions/opinion
Published Saturday, Aug. 06, 2011.   John Ibbitson

Stephen Harper has a clearer field to implement his government’s agenda than any prime minister has enjoyed in decades. But what will he do with it?

Will he continue to play the role of Cautious Stephen, charting a prudent course toward a balanced budget while preserving the existing social contract? Or will he become Wild Steve, his ultra-conservative doppelganger, who once railed against dependency-inducing transfer programs?

The past five years suggest that Cautious Stephen will keep Wild Steve in check. But if the Prime Minister does want to let his inner über-conservative twin loose, this is the time to do it.

The Conservatives in Ottawa have virtually no opposition. Both the Liberals and the NDP are in disarray, struggling with the challenges of interim leaders and internal contradictions, while a raft of provincial elections this fall could put rookie conservative premiers in office across much of the country. Politically, this is as close to carte blanche as it gets.

But here’s another thing, something Wild Steve must surely have noticed. The Conservatives now dominate in the wealthy, growing parts of the country, mostly west of the Ottawa River, while opposition support is largely centred in the poorer regions of Quebec and the Maritimes.

This offers the Conservatives an opportunity to tackle, with relatively little political risk, the entitlement regime that funnels money from richer regions to poorer. Consider three key areas where Wild Steve must surely be nudging his sweater-wearing counterpart.

A recent study by the Mowat Centre, an Ontario-issues think tank, observed that Canada is the only developed country that bases eligibility for employment insurance benefits in part on where you live. The current formula divides the country into 58 economic regions. You can qualify for benefits after as few as 420 hours worked or as much as 700 hours, depending on what zone you’re in.

EI has become a federal welfare program for people who live in areas with chronic high unemployment. Returning it to its original purpose of providing temporary help for people who suddenly find themselves unemployed would be one of Wild Steve’s top goals.

Equalization would be another priority for Wild Steve. The complex formula is clearly broken, since Ontario now collects more from it than any province other than Quebec. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has suggested in the past that perhaps the whole system should be scrapped. He won’t get much of an argument from voters in the “have” provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. All three are Tory bastions.

Then there’s health care. The current federal funding formula expires in 2014. Some premiers want Mr. Harper to get started on a new plan that would last another decade. But Wild Steve would rather cut 10 separate deals, freeing those provinces that want more leeway to experiment with parallel private care from the strictures of the Canada Health Act.

Those three reforms alone would bring huge changes to the federation, as poorer regions found themselves expected to help themselves, while the growing, prosperous parts of the country invested more heavily in things such as urban infrastructure and advanced education.

Wild Steve would note that, even if this cost the Conservatives every one of the 19 seats they hold east of Ontario in the next election, they would keep their majority government. And hey, aren’t the Conservatives planning to introduce legislation this fall that would give Ontario, B.C. and Alberta 30 new seats?

But Cautious Stephen will rightly worry about the impact on the party and the country of deepening the east-west divide. He may tinker, but root-and-branch reform of the transfer system would be a political risk too far.

He wouldn’t dare let Wild Steve run free. Would he?

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