Federalism has seemingly fallen out of favour these days. National strategies, patchwork consensus, and top-down policymaking have seemingly become the norm.
Premier meetings regularly conclude with a single communique that forces conformity and discourages dissent. Ottawa micromanages health-care decisions as we've recently witnessed in Quebec. And now the federal government is threatening to impose a national carbon tax if the provinces fail to comply with its climate change agenda and preference for carbon pricing. A centralizing drift has come to mark our politics.
Federalism was a controversial idea in the years leading to up Confederation.
Now would be a good time to remind ourselves of federalism's role in the Confederation project. That provincial premiers would represent diverging views and have different agendas wasn't an inadvertent bug but a deliberate feature of our system of governance. Federalism was foundational to the founders' vision and a source of strength for our burgeoning country, and can continue to be in the future.
The irony is that Canadian governance is drifting towards centralization when so much of modern life is decentralizing due to technological advances and market developments. We can for instance listen to any music or watch any movie we want at any moment on any device. Yet our government and politics is moving in the direction of more centralization, fewer options, and less choice.
It's time to rediscover federalism and what it offers in the modern age of multiplicity, diversity, and subsidiarity.
Federalism was a controversial idea in the years leading to up Confederation. It seemed to signal disunity and discordance rather than unity and national purpose. Yet Sir Alexander Galt, the "ideas man" of the Confederation experience, saw it differently. He came to advance a vision of federalism that flipped the counterarguments on their head and positioned it not just as the "real cure" to the ills that bedeviled British North America but as the source of national strength.
The logic of Galt's federalist solution was to push the most divisive issues down to the level of the provinces and thus open up a clear field for a new national politics focused on national issues such as common defence and security, the functioning of the national economy, and specific fiscal and monetary responsibilities.
Confederation would thus promote the best interests of the "several and united interests" of the provinces, but still preserve to each the "uncontrolled management of its peculiar institutions and of those internal affairs respecting which differences of opinion might arise with other members of the confederacy." It was a clever formulation that recognized the unsustainability of the united provinces and the need for an alternative that respected our regional and local eccentricities.
Government policy should seek to leverage the federalist tradition.
But Galt's vision wasn't just about reconciling differences with regards to religion, language, and culture. He also saw it as a means of drawing on new ideas and promoting pluralism. Canadians might "find in the diversities of race and religion an incentive to honourable rivalry in favour of our common country, rather than to leave them, as now, the subjects by which any party leader may build up an evanescent and baneful popularity by arraying one class against another."
Much of modern politics has pushed against this vision. Premiers are discouraged from asserting provincial interests that differ from the collective consensus. Just ask Premier Wall on climate change or Premier Couillard on health-care user fees. The pressure to conform is strong. Ottawa's threat of a federal carbon price for those provinces which refuse to accept its climate change agenda and enact their own is the latest example of this centralizing tendency that's not the monopoly of any political party.
It's happening against a backdrop of decentralization in the other aspects of our lives and therefore may soon encounter political resistance, including from millennials who've come of age in an era of technologically-enabled individualism. One-size-fits-all isn't part of their lived experience.
Herein lies the potential to rediscover Galt's vision.
Government policy should seek to leverage the federalist tradition. This means more local experimentation, less central planning, and empowering provincial and local governments to advance provincial and local interests in their respective constitutional spheres without federal meddling or pressure to conform. Saskatchewan should have a different climate change policy if that's what its citizens want. Quebec should be able to impose user fees for hospital and physician services if that's what's right for the province. And the country will be better off for it.
It doesn't mean that the provinces won't sometimes choose to have similar policies or that Ottawa shouldn't have a healthy understanding of its role in the proper functioning of the national economy (as we recently wrote about with regards to housing affordability). But it does mean that the default instinct to top-down federal mandates and politically-imposed provincial conformity should be replaced by a reappreciation of subsidiarity.
It's a good reminder that we have much to learn from our past. Galt was right. Canada is stronger because of federalism.
Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.
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