Friday, July 14, 2006

Stephane Dion on Federalism

While Stephane mentions the environment more than anything else in his campaign ("Speaking of North Korea's nuclear threats, they've made great strides with their recycling program over there"), I was most interested to talk to him about federalism. While I know he'd disagree with me, I think his performance as environment minister was a bit disappointing; but I've always respected the work he did in intergovernmental affairs and, in particular, the drafting of the Clarity Act (note to Conservative posters: Yes, yes, Stephen Harper and Preston Manning were the brains behind it...I don't need to be reminded of that every time I mention it). So just like everyone wants to talk to Ken Dryden about his NHL career, and everyone wants to talk to Ron Howard about Happy Days, Dion will probably be forever labeled as the "Clarity Act guy". Below is a recap of our conversation about the state of federalism in Canada:

Dion's refusal to cave in on the fiscal imbalance issue is certainly one of the areas where he differs from a few of his competitors so I asked him to elaborate a bit on the press release he sent out claiming that Rae and Ignatieff's talk about the fiscal imbalance was helping the separatists.

He started by taking a few shots at Harper for backing down on his fiscal imbalance promise and points out that the budget discussion paper implied that there wasn't a fiscal imbalance if you read between the lines. He feels that when Harper doesn't give out the billions of dollars the separatists expect, Duceppe and Boisclair will be able to say that Ottawa has yet again betrayed Quebec and hasn't solved the problem.

With respect to his comments about Bob and Michael, he smiles and calls it "a friendly warning". Because the term "fiscal imbalance" means something different in every province, it's important to be careful when you use such a politically charged word. For the separatists, the words are a trap they use as an argument that Canada doesn't work and Dion feels that claiming the fiscal imbalance exists without defining it is falling into that trap. By stating the imbalance exists without offering a definition or a cure, you're giving them an opening to claim whatever you do has been a failure.

Dion goes on to say that he's more disappointed in Rae because "he should know better" and "understand the trap" (read into that what you will). Stephane feels that even if Rae has ideas for things like pharmacare to fix the problem, that Quebecers do not know what his ideas are and this will inevitably lead to problems. His main beef appears to be with those who offer to fix the imbalance without explaining how it will be fixed.

The most interesting argument Dion raises is of the political fall out. He claims (and I agree) that the Liberal Party would have zero credibility in Quebec if they tried to fight an election promising to eradicate the fiscal imbalance: "people will say 'you put us into this mess for 12 years and now you want to fix it?'" He feels a flip-flop like this would be seen as just copying Harper and wouldn't win us any votes in Quebec.

When I ask him what Ignatieff and Rae should say on the topic, he replies: "They should tell Gilles Duceppe that it's irrational to use a large surplus as a reason to separate from a country." There's a twinge of arrogance in Dion's voice for the entire discussion, and I don't necessarily say that as a bad thing.

Dion has a reputation as a strong central government guy but, as Paul Wells showed in his killing of the "Draft Dion" blog, Dion has often advocated decentralization and has shied away from federal intrusion into provincial jurisdictions. So I decide to ask Dion about the role of the federal government in provincial jurisdictions (I have his specific answers regarding health care and education in the part 3 "quick answers").

He steals a line from Gilles Duceppe, saying we don't need "Ottawa knows best" and that the federal government should stay away from provincial jurisdictions. According to Dion, there's still a lot to do in federal fields and that's where the focus should be. Aboriginals, infrastructure, National Parks, the 0.7% foreign aid target, the pension plan, dealing with our aging population, climate change - these are all things in the federal jurisdiction which Dion feels we need to spend money on. He agrees that money can be spent on things like health care and education, but is reluctant to put strings on it.

Given this reputation for taking a hard line with the provinces, I decide to ask him about the special status Quebec got in Martin's Health Accord (to fix health care for a generation yada yada).

Dion skates around the asymmetrical federalism question, saying that Quebec was ahead of the other provinces with their plan to set benchmarks so he doesn't see it as a huge problem. "So long as Quebec is doing the same, it's OK. It isn't two different worlds."

Finally, I decide to hit him with the "is Quebec a Nation" question. Stephane re-emphasizes what he's said before: that Quebec is a nation in the sociological definition of the word. Quebecers are a group of people with a collective identity and that makes them a nation.

He is quick to point out that it would be a disaster to put this into the constitution "as some have suggested". At that point, it would becomes necessary to determine which other people in Canada (and Quebec for that matter) are nations and that's bound to leave a lot of groups upset.

He also doesn't see any practical benefit of putting it into the constitution if you somehow could reach consensus on the number of nations in Canada. If it won't change anything, it's more hassle than it's worth. If it gives one group of Canadians special status or extra powers, it would be an incredibly "audacious" move that contradicts the principle of equality among Canadians.

He doesn't name names, but for anyone advocating constitutional change, Stephane says that "I hope he knows what's the next step".

"But you yourself supported Meech Lake, which would have given many special powers to Quebec." I ask. "How would this be any different?"

Dion replies that, yes, he was for Meech and Charlottetown. However, his interpretation of the distinct society clause in them was that it simply meant judges should take the distinct nature of Quebec into account when reaching decisions, which he feels they do. He re-emphasized that another round of constitutional talks would be a mistake since it's bound to leave someone disappointed and convinced that Canada doesn't work.

I ask him if he's against any constitutional changes under any circumstances.

He replies that he'd only consider it if it's done on a case-by-case basis. He doesn't want to have "mega-constitutional talks" where everyone puts their demands forward.

"Can you imagine if the United States ripped up their constitution and tried to re-write it, keeping everyone happy?" He feels, it would just be asking for trouble.


  • The Clarity Act? You know, Preston Manning and Stephen Harper... nevermind. ;-)

    By Blogger Christian Conservative, at 8:20 AM  

  • Oh yeah, that's right, Stephen Harper invented the Clarity Act... Why doesn't anyone bring that up when he goes to Quebec City and rural Quebec to pander to nationalists? Next time Steve goes to Quebec, he should be sure to remind everyone that HE invented the Clarity Act; I'm sure Quebeckers will be impressed and grateful!

    That's something I like about Stephane Dion: unlike Stephen Harper and most of the Lib leadership candidates, he does not have one speech for Quebec and another for the rest of Canada. He's a man with strong beliefs, and he's not afraid of promoting his ideas in every part of the country, in both official languages. It's refreshing.

    By Blogger Ed King, at 8:40 AM  

  • If the clarity act makes Dion unelectable in Quebec, and Harper invented the clarity act (and maybe the Internet too?) wouldn't that make Harper unelectable in Quebec? Or is that all just hooey? I think it's hooey.

    By Blogger A BCer in Toronto, at 9:39 AM  

  • You know, I already liked Dion best, but had some wariness - you've really upped my impression of him this morning, CG.

    Harper doesn't pander to nationalists.

    Actually, he and Dion are an excellent match-up - quiet intellectual no-pizzaz policy guy vs quiet intellectual no-pizzaz policy guy. They compliment each other perfectly - like He-Man and Skeletor had identical bodies, builds, and swords, but different colours.

    By Blogger Jason Bo Green, at 10:32 AM  

  • People will vote for someone they may not particularly like, or for someone they may not particularly agree with, if they respect the person.

    This is the reason for Harper's success in Quebec, and will be for Dion's.

    A lot of people in Quebec may disagree with Dion, but they have come to respect him.

    By Blogger godot10, at 10:57 AM  

  • Good comments to this post. Really insightful stuff.

    By Blogger Hammering Jow, at 11:03 AM  

  • a. Part of the fiscal imbalance perception is that the feds tax and spend in provincial domains. From that vantage point one could name it "economically inefficient federalism". I really, really like Dion's line about how a big surplus shouldn't destroy a country, although when the most tangible effect of government spending the average person experiences are potholes and hospital waiting rooms it wears thin. As such, it would seem to me that he could concede that firming up the demarcation between federal and provincial domains ought to mitigate perceptions of a fiscal imbalance.

    b. If we ripped up our constitution all the time, we'd be like France. But unlike the US, we wouldn't have to grope around in the dark of a 18th century document for things like a right to privacy (i.e. the S1 Mendoza episode of the West Wing).

    By Blogger matt, at 11:35 AM  

  • Dion talking about the environment, after his great non-performance as the EM, has the same credibility as Hugh Heffner talking about celibacy.

    By Blogger Fred :), at 3:02 PM  

  • Frontrunner position seems to be trending from Ignatieff to Dion.

    Were Federal governments quietly behind this due to the unemployment it would create?

    Why did GM kill the EV-1?

    By Blogger TonyGuitar, at 4:08 PM  

  • Godot10, you are exactly right, exactly right, and exactly right.

    By Blogger Jason Bo Green, at 5:14 PM  

  • "Because the term "fiscal imbalance" means something different in every province, it's important to be careful when you use such a politically charged word. For the separatists, the words are a trap"

    not like the word "nation" thats not politically charged at all. socio-civico-spirituo or whatever.

    By Blogger Chuckercanuck, at 6:13 PM  

  • Chuckercanuck,

    I think you missed the point. Dion did not say that politically charged phrases should never be used, he said that those who use them should define them clearly in order to avoid creating dangerously unrealistic expectations. Dion was careful in his use of the word 'nation'; unlike Charest and Layton, he gave a clear explanation of what it meant to him and what its legal and constitutional consequences should, or should not, be. He left very little room for interpretation.

    Mr. Harper (as well as some Lib candidates) was not so clear when talking about the fiscal imbalance during the election. He told everyone that the imbalance existed, yet he refused to define it or prescribe a remedy. Some premiers thought it meant excluding resource revenue from the formula, others believed the opposite. Harper's refusal to provide any details gave rise to unrealistic expectations, which the Tories attempted to defuse only AFTER winning an election.

    Dion is warning about the consequences of such (apparent) duplicity.

    By Blogger Ed King, at 6:44 PM  

  • CG,

    I forget if you've been able to interview Bob Rae. I just read on the CTV site that ol Rae says the Libs should force an election over the softwood dispute.

    Now TELL me he's not so stupid. This softwood deal is the only one we're going to get. I hope to hell cooler heads prevail and this doesn't come to fruition.

    This is the real world, we're not going to get everything we want. This is the last time for likely 4-5 years before this issue will be revisited by an American administration and we are PLAYING with the lives of lumber industry workers by putting politics into this deal.

    If you get an interview with Rae... can you ask him WHY he is so out to lunch?

    By Blogger Riley Hennessey, at 7:17 PM  

  • Rae's team now getting the numbers and seeing that Rae is well behind in new memberships and has little hope to pick up older core Liberal members is now engadged in a hail marry attempt to garner media and member attention over the summer in order to give him a fighting chance.

    It's pretty clear that the Liberal left has choosen Kennedy over Rae.

    By Blogger Manitoba Liberal, at 7:29 PM  

  • good point manitoba liberal.

    It obviously is a last ditch attempt. For all the talk that Rae was a front runner, sure doesn't look it now does it.

    By Blogger Riley Hennessey, at 7:41 PM  

  • Nonsense. Dion is the only federalist currently elected that has a grasp of the Quebec file. Yes, that's right, more than Chretien, Harper or Trudeau. My boy McKenna is a very close second, but he's pull himself out of the political spotlight.

    By Blogger Brent, at 9:50 PM  

  • Bob Rae is not stupid, but he is dumber than a bag of hammers when it comes to having a political antenna . . . he just doesn't undertstand Canada or Canadians.

    Probably why he is despised in Ontario . . the great fool who ran the province's economy into the gutter.

    How about "Rae Days" all across the country, in every province.

    Should sell the Liberal Brand very well.

    By Blogger Fred :), at 10:40 PM  

  • ed,

    agreed - that nuance escaped me entirely. good luck with it. :)

    By Blogger Chuckercanuck, at 3:54 PM  

  • Well, I still like this potential Rae campaign slogan:

    "Let's make everyday a Rae Day."

    By Blogger Josh Gould, at 7:16 PM  

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