Fiscal imbalance is slippery slope for federalism


12 novembre 2004
Those who hope the ugly infighting within the Parti Quebecois and the election of a federalist government in Quebec have put the national-unity issue to rest better think again.
If anything, the constitutional issue is making a fierce comeback. Only this time, it comes under a different brand name. Given that the renewal of the constitution remains out of the question since the failure of the Meech and Charlottetown accords, the dreaded C-word has been replaced with the more palatable F-word: federalism.
Conservative leader Stephen Harper wants Belgium-style federalism. Prime Minister Paul Martin says he prefers his co-operative and flexible. Action Democratique leader Mario Dumont dreams of the autonomist kind. All the while French-language newspapers are filled with editorials and op-ed pieces on federalism.
Even Gilles Duceppe wants in - kind of. In what looks like another move to increase his visibility for a future shot at Bernard Landry's job, Duceppe is touring the ROC to "explain" sovereignty to Canadians. He does this with an interesting new twist where he also professes his "respect" for what he calls the great Canadian nation.
Jean Charest wants something called asymmetrical federalism, which, in essence, differs from Robert Bourassa's vision. Charest talks of building a "Canadian agenda" based on a form of asymmetry that could apply to all provinces, whereas Bourassa always preferred a special status for Quebec.
After the federal-provincial meeting on health-care funding in September, Charest boasted he had wrestled such asymmetry from Ottawa. But since then, Paul Martin has been facing a major backlash from his caucus and various English-Canadian media against any form of asymmetry.
Then came more bad news for Charest. First, his finance minister, Yves Seguin, accused Ottawa of bleeding Quebec dry with insufficient equalization payments. Second, a poll for the Council for Canadian Unity had support for sovereignty way up at 49 per cent. Even more devastating, it showed 93 per cent of Canadians outside Quebec were not willing to give this province some kind of special recognition even if it would strengthen national unity.
So, on Monday, Charest came out swinging in Charlottetown. He delivered his most critical speech about the federal government in years - a speech even Bourassa would have endorsed. Its title - "Rediscovering the Spirit of Federalism" - showed how much Charest is convinced such a spirit is lost on the federal government.
With that speech, Charest got his constitutional groove back. The talk was straight and unforgiving, just like it was when he was leader of the federal Conservative Party confronting Jean Chretien's Trudeau-style federalism.
Like all Quebec premiers, Charest issued the demand that Ottawa "resist the temptation of centralization." But more important, he condemned Canada's "slide toward a unitary state." Those are mighty strong words from a federalist and they should have been music to the PQ's ears.
But in a display of the absentee opposition it has become as it wallows in its leadership crisis, not a word came from Landry on Charest's statement.
In Canada, nowhere is this slippery slope toward a unitary state more apparent than in the growing fiscal imbalance. Charest observed this is also creating a political imbalance. Whereas have-not provinces like Quebec remain cash-strapped, Ottawa uses its huge surpluses to invade provincial jurisdictions such as health care, day care, municipalities, education and so on.
Charest figured Paul Martin as the ultimate villain of this fiscal imbalance, referring to the drastic cuts he started making to transfer payments in 1995 when he was finance minister. Martin might now speak of co-operative federalism, but Charest knows his actions show otherwise.
Charest mentioned the estimated $166-billion surplus Martin could rack up in the next 10 years. Yesterday, La Presse also reported another $7 billion has been put away in various foundations set up by the federal government in the past few years.
This is more money Ottawa has to spend in provincial jurisdictions. Shockingly enough, this $7 billion escapes scrutiny by the House of Commons. On the same day, Le Devoir also revealed the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation now has an impressive $2.5-billion surplus.
In face of the sheer power that comes with all of these billions of tax dollars Martin keeps piling up, Charest better forget about his "spirit of federalism," Harper about his Belgium model, and Dumont about his "autonomy."
With such surpluses at his disposal, Martin is slowly turning the fiscal imbalance into high-way robbery.
If there's anything asymmetrical about Martin's brand of federalism, it lies in Ottawa's riches and Quebec's unanswered needs.

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