Sunday, March 11, 2007

Alberta and Quebec are in the Same Fight

Here is our monthly column published March 11, 2007 in LaPresse.

Influential Albertans are following the Quebec election with an especially keen interest, because many of us know this is an axial time in Canadian politics.

Other Canadians provinces need a Quebec government that strongly defines and articulates Quebec’s aspirations, and maintains the robust defence of Quebecois jurisdiction in the face of federal encroachments.

The remarkable political skills of Stephen Harper, the Machiavellian élan with which he ravaged the opposition Liberals – leaving Stephane Dion stunned and defenceless against a barrage of half-truths and innuendoes – shows a prime minister who will do anything necessary to achieve his ends.

And if that means pushing the boundaries on jurisdiction, elbowing aside the legitimate interest of the provinces, who will stop him? Historically, it has been Quebec and Alberta. And that alliance must endure, no matter who forms the next government of Quebec.

We are learning in Alberta that the political stripe of the prime minister doesn’t matter, and it’s not even relevant that he is elected from an Alberta riding. We understand as Quebecers do, that just because the prime minister is from your province doesn’t mean that he will advance your province’s interests. This is still a bit of a shock for us, but we have seen enough to know that Harper is indeed a Canadian prime minister who will relentlessly, even ruthlessly, push the limits of federal power.

Consider the Harper government’s five priorities. Two of them – child care and guaranteed wait times for health care – are purely in provincial jurisdiction. And it’s not as though the priorities were just campaign rhetoric. In February, federal Health Minister Tony Clement tried to force the provinces to committing to guaranteed wait times. Informed of this last-minute effort to coerce a meeting of federal provincial and territorial health ministers, Alberta decided to stay home.

In a similar vein, Harper’s noisy law-and-order agenda, complete with a crude effort to appoint compliant judges, misses a basic point. Federal judicial appointments don’t affect the great majority of cases that come before the courts. In every province, all but the most serious criminal code offences are the jurisdiction of provincial courts, whose judges are appointed solely by the provinces. Moreover, if Harper succeeds in enacting longer mandatory sentences for a broad range of offences, provinces will be left with the cost of building prison space and providing the prison staff. The federal government makes a decision; provinces get stuck with the tab.

Similarly, Harper has been acting directly against Alberta’s interests with his confused approach to China. First Stockwell Day insists Canada is over-run by Chinese spies. Then David Emerson drums up business in China. Just as Alberta is trying to find market alternatives to the United States for its energy supply Harper hints that Chinese investment in Alberta’s energy sector is undesirable and unwelcome. Then he sends Jim Flaherty to go drum up business in China. All the while, Harper declares he will not sacrifice human rights in China to the almighty dollar. A noble sentiment. Yet Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin brought up human rights with Chinese leadership, secured a Canadian role in training judges and improving the rule of law in China, and involved Chinese and Canadian senior officials in monitoring the advancement of human rights. While doing this they expanded the China trade to Alberta’s benefit. Why would an Albertan prime minister throw all of that away?

Alberta has spent three decades of constructive engagement with China, building a patient, careful enduring relationship. This has finally led to the point that China is Alberta’s second largest trading partner. When a fall on the Shanghai stock exchange can cause global markets to dive, when the U.S. continues to borrow $1 billion each day from China to finance its Iraq war and its tax cuts for the richest Americans, we have clear proof of China’s power and influence. Albertans value the adroit and nuanced relationship we built – and the positive influence we have acquired as a result. Now it is imperilled by the Harper government’s reckless grandstanding.

All this has happened with a Harper minority. If he gets a majority, of which he is perfectly capable, who will limit his exercise of federal power? Once again Quebec and Alberta must stand at the ramparts. We ardently hope your election will provide a strong, clear-sighted partner to resist the centralist and centralising impulse of a controlling national government.