Not again. Not more constitutional talks or more federal-provincial scuffles for power. But there was Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier last week, calling for the resumption of federal-provincial constitutional talks to address the division of powers. A day later, Quebec Premier Jean Charest gravely conceded the time is not right for formal constitutional discussions. Instead, he called for the creation of a charter to strictly limit federal spending powers. Does this push for more autonomy never cease?
Perhaps these new Quebec demands, coming only five months after the province received millions of dollars in additional federal transfers, were inevitable. After all, Stephen Harper campaigned in Quebec during the last federal election with the promise to "limit the federal spending powers that the Liberals have so badly abused." Although the Prime Minister has not publicly followed up on that rash promise, behind-the-scenes discussions in Ottawa indicate that he may be willing to sign a formal deal with Quebec that would constrain Ottawa's long-standing power to spend in areas of provincial jurisdiction. To avoid the appearance of special status for Quebec, other provinces would be free to sign the deal.
Such radical change would alter the invaluable flexibility of the nation's constitutional arrangements. In 1867, Ottawa and the provinces tidily divided their 19th-century duties into distinct spheres that have long since overlapped as technology changed and the economy developed. In the mid-20th century, Ottawa began funding today's social programs, such as old-age pensions, even though it was spending in areas of provincial jurisdiction. In 1999, in response to provincial complaints about federal intrusions, Ottawa agreed to introduce new social programs only with the consent of a majority of provincial governments. Provinces could opt out, with compensation, as long as they offered a program that met the national objectives. That was an acceptable compromise.
Now Quebec wants to draw Ottawa into a formal pact that would curb Ottawa's ability to spend in any area of provincial jurisdiction. The wonderful elasticity of the Constitution, which has accommodated 140 years of federal-provincial jostling, would be frozen in time while the demands on government evolved. No sooner would Mr. Charest achieve his pact than Mr. Pelletier would almost certainly demand that it be incorporated into the Constitution. As the minister said last week, "We will be very insistent." Mr. Harper should reject these demands.