PM's ambition destroying the nation

Lana Payne
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It appears nothing is safe from Stephen Harper's ruthless hunger for a majority - not even the Canadian federation.
The prime minister and his caucus gathered in Quebec last week to talk policy and politics.
The policy talk was not aimed at making the nation greater, but rather weaker. If there was anything left of the shop to give away before the Harperites arrived in Quebec, there certainly wasn't by the time they went home.
Cabinet ministers gave rare interviews to the media, but even then there was a method to the madness - the floating of trial balloons before a possible fall election.
Some of the balloons were filled with the same stale air - like the Conservative plan to get tough on crime at a time when statistics say crime in the country is at an all-time low.
And then there was the continuation of the Harper agenda to alter the federation - handing over even more "autonomy" to the provinces, weakening and neutering the federal government by giving up nationhood powers to the provinces, especially Quebec.
Despite the prime minister's bravado last week, it is no wonder they are so desperate for votes. Even with an uninspiring opposition, the Conservatives can't charm enough Canadians into liking them, into feeling comfortable with them or agreeing with their direction.
According to news reports last week, Lawrence Cannon, the prime minister's Quebec lieutenant, says his government is prepared to allow Quebec to negotiate bilateral labour-mobility agreements with France, another nation.
Usually such deals are made nation to nation - another indication that Harper is willing to give Quebec whatever it wants in order to get the votes he needs to secure a majority so he can really get down to the business of carving up the country.
And if Alberta wants to go off and negotiate trade deals with other countries, then that, it seems, is OK, too.

Money woes
But then the tax-cut-crazy Conservatives have little money left in which to build the nation through any new federal programs, or even to enhance the ones we already have. And that, it appears, has been the intention all along.
In her book "French Kiss," Chantal HÉbert, the national affairs columnist for The Toronto Star, wrote of Harper's preference for a more decentralized federation. This is critical to his plan to woo Quebec voters.
And last week, he certainly did that, urging Quebec nationalists into the Harper tent.
The problem with all this devolution and decentralization is, where does it end?
What will it mean for national programs and standards? What will it mean for Canada, the nation? What will this mean for health care? A national Employment Insurance program? And does anyone care about these anymore or are we merely a land of provinces and territories all going our own way?
While most of us would agree that we do not need a "father-knows-best" attitude coming out of Ottawa, we do need the ability to nation-build in the collective sense. We do need the ability to create, sustain and enhance programs and institutions that contribute to our collective identity. Ottawa does need the ability to act in the interests of the nation.
Certainly the ability to do any of these appears to be paralyzed by Harper's new vision of Canada, but articulating a counter vision will not be easy for the opposition. Opposition parties have to respect the mucky, shark-invested waters that make up federal-provincial relations. They also need to be careful not to step on too many provincial toes.
Brian Mulroney started the decentralization trend, and every prime minister since has gleefully hopped on the bandwagon. It's easier to give away than to build.

Staying the course
And it seems the giveaway will continue.
Will the next election actually be fought on matters of federal/provincial jurisdiction as Harper appears to want? He certainly does not desire an election fought on the economy or the fiscal health of federal coffers, which his government has blown.
In July, the federal Finance department's Fiscal Monitor reported that Ottawa had slipped into a $500-million deficit for the first two months in this fiscal year compared to a $2.8-billion surplus for the same period in 2007.
The Fiscal Monitor also noted that in those two months revenues to the federal government were down a whopping $1.6 billion, mostly because of lower corporate taxes and cuts to the GST.
Blown surpluses, a slowing economy - these are not the things a Harper government would want highlighted in an election campaign.
Will he be successful in his attempt to reel the opposition into a debate over federal-provincial powers, pushing the economy to the back burner?
The question is not whether Liberal Leader Stephane Dion can fish or cut bait as Harper accused last week, but whether Dion will take the bait.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement.She can be reached by e-mail column returns Aug. 17.

Organizations: Conservatives, French Kiss, The Toronto Star

Geographic location: Quebec, Ottawa, Canada France Alberta

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