- Front Page
August 17, 2008
By Doug Firby
Alberta Columnist/Senior Editor
CALGARY, AB, Aug. 17, 2008/ Troy Media/ — Through the quiet and remarkably efficient tenure of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority government, one complaint that has virtually disappeared from the national debate is the West’s longstanding grievance over lack of clout on the national stage. That’s because, on the things that matter most, the West is getting its way.
If holding sway in Ottawa depends on having the ear of the inner sanctum, the West is in, all right. And home-boy Harper – the MP for Conservative bedrock Calgary Southwest – has his ears tuned sharply.
Wily Harper has returned to the deal-making days of the Brian Mulroney government, catering to the appetites in both Quebec and Alberta for greater autonomy, and a decentralized governing model. But, unlike Mulroney, Harper has avoided the kinds of deals with closet separatists that would later come back to bite his ill-fated predecessor.
Even his critics have to admit that it is remarkable what Harper has been able to achieve while walking the tightrope of a minority government. In the latest move, in late July, Quebec lieutenant Lawrence Cannon announced the government is prepared to let Quebec negotiate a unilateral labour-mobility deal with France, and is willing to provide each province with similar autonomy on economic issues.
It is an unambiguous sign that the Conservatives are willing to make exclusive arrangements with each province. And, as such, it is a profound evolution in the way the national government works with its provincial counterparts.
As national columnist Lawrence Martin cheekily observed: “Yes, Matilda, the Conservatives have a vision. A federation of fiefdoms. Stephen Harper – headwaiter to the provinces.”
Albertans in particular like what the PM is serving up. For one thing, Cannon’s announcement provides a stamp of approval to Alberta’s international trade missions – including the office in Washington, D.C., which so ruffled feathers in Ottawa when it opened in early 2005.
“Autonomy is a way to give the partners in the federation, according to their specific and timely needs, the powers and accommodations … that will allow them to move forward to meet their economic goals.” said Cannon. Now there’s a comment every premier can love.
As much as the West is getting its way, it’s important for other Canadians to know that Harper has also tested Albertans’ patience with initiatives aimed to build support in other parts of the country. The hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure money for beleaguered Ontario, for example, is fundamentally at odds with the less-government orthodoxy of the West.
But what really hit home was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s decision to revise the tax structure on income trusts, a move that enraged Calgary’s oil patch. It was a calculated risk, yet one that may not ultimately cost the Conservatives as much support as many predict. Much as Flaherty’s decision hurt investors in this city, most would rather drink bleach than switch their support to the Liberals.
The anti-Grit antipathy has deep historical roots. A full quarter century after the much-reviled prime minister Pierre Trudeau unilaterally imposed the National Energy Program on Alberta, Calgary’s elite continues to stew over what see as the ultimate centrist assault. That single act, which amplified the effects of a world-wide recession, seems to have indefinitely sealed the fortunes for his party in this province.
Notwithstanding the long memories, it’s hard to see how things could be going better for the West today, and most notably in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Environment Minister John Baird’s moderate emissions plan buys enough time for the oil sands projects in both provinces to roll ahead, virtually unabated by nothing more than swings in the price of oil and the cost of construction. The economy remains so hot that the only thing hurting it right now is its own success, and the resultant cost inflation.
For its part, Vancouver is starting to feel a high from the 1010 Winter Olympics, a party infused with many millions of federal largesse.
Yes, things are going well, all right. The one fly in the ointment is the Conservatives’ ongoing stagnation in the polls, which – in spite of aggressive reform and ambitious agenda-setting – leaves them at risk of yet another minority government . . . or worse.
And that is why Harper is likely to try to buy more time before submitting his efforts at national reconciliation to the judgment of the people. Time is his ally, and Harper can be expected to use as much of it as he can, in the hope that, if Eastern Canada can’t learn to love him, grudging respect will do.
Doug Firby is former Editorial Page Editor of the Calgary Herald. He is Alberta columnist for Troy Media.
Channels: Trail Daily Times, August 12, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix and the Laval News, August 14, the Brandon Sun, August 15, the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, August 19, theWinnipeg Free Press and Lakeside Leader, September 3, 2008
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