THE BLOG

Canada's Future Lies in Small Politics

04/28/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Canadians don't trust their governments to do much of anything.

In the summer of 2012, Nanos Research and the Institute for Research on Public Policy conducted an online poll of 2,000 Canadians and asked them to rate the importance of policy concerns and their expectation that governments could deliver on each policy concern.

Canadians care about the things they always have - their health and that of their loved ones, being able to pay their bills - rating healthcare and jobs as the two most important policy concerns. However, Canadians now believe governments do more damage than good when addressing the big issues.

Canadians are becoming more libertarian in this regard. They would prefer their governments do as they do - pay the bills, keep the lights on, and leave well enough alone.

There are political actors in this country who understand the growing lack of confidence Canadians have in their governments. Given that Canadians no longer trust their governments to deliver progress on the big issues our political parties have shifted to smaller, incremental, practical policy solutions.

Take the Conservative Party's 2006 platform - the Accountability Act, reducing the GST, strengthening the justice system, direct child care assistance to families, and a patient wait times guarantee. Canadians understood these five promises to be doable. The Conservative Party's simplified policy approach was reinforced in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's open federalism.

On April 21, 2006 in Montreal, Quebec, Prime Minister Stephen Harper set out the federal government's conception of open federalism. Open federalism meant "taking advantage of the experience and expertise that the provinces and territories can contribute to the national dialogue; respecting areas of provincial jurisdiction; keeping the federal government's spending power within bounds; full cooperation by the Government of Canada with all other levels of government, while clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each".

Open federalism has let the provinces lead the country. More importantly, it laid the groundwork for more practical, constitutional, policy proposals from the federal and provincial governments.

In The Longer I'm Prime Minister, Paul Wells writes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had no intention of attaching a forest of strings to health-care transfer to the provinces as prime ministers Chretien and Martin had. No longer would Ottawa be in the business of "buying change," a Liberal-era euphemism for blackmailing the provinces into compliance.

Given section 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which states that in each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to "The Establishment, Maintenance, and Management of Hospitals" Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision, through the tenets of open federalism, to respect this area of provincial jurisdiction in regards to health-care transfers is in keeping with Constitution, practical, and long overdue.

However in 2012, former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow commented that if Prime Minister Stephen Harper were not to take a leadership role in talks about the constitutionally, entirely provincial matter of healthcare, the very fabric of our nation would be imperiled.

But, Canada is still here. After the April 7 Quebec election and the resounding defeat of the Parti Quebecois Canada is stronger than ever. Open federalism does not threaten national unity but supports it through provincial autonomy. So why the opposition to practical, constitutionally sound policy?

Ideology. The Canadian left believes the nation's problems are solved from the top down. From Ottawa out to the provinces. A national strategy for every problem regardless of practicality or Canada's Constitution. The Canadian public, no longer viewing their governments as instruments of good or capable of delivering progress, thinks differently.

Canadians' politics are local, not national. The lack of confidence in governments to take on the country's big issues means Canadians trust their governments with smaller, achievable goals. Affordable, doable policy solutions trump vague, grand promises, programs, or visions.

Canada's West understands the shift in the country's attitude towards government more than the Central Canadian, left-leaning governing elites of the 20th century. Compare the priorities of the New West Partnership provinces to those of Ontario and Quebec.

The premiers of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia made it easier for people moving between the provinces by eliminating inspections on vehicles less than four years old and harmonizing apprenticeship programs so apprentices do not need to repeat their training.

The Premier of Ontario recently announced $29 billion in transportation infrastructure spending over the next decade with no details on how the province will pay for it beyond $1.3 billion a year in gas taxes. Quebec just went through an election in which the major issues were the province's secularity and the possibility of another referendum on sovereignty. Both provinces are upwards of $260 billion in debt.

There is a reason Central Canada no longer leads the country -- they don't understand it.