Alberta will test Harper
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 3, 2006

The failure of the prime minister to rise above the Parliamentary Press Gallery contretemps mars the inherent statesmanship he frequently displays on other files.

From restoring pride in Canada’s military and making Canada a respected neighbour of the United States to an increasingly manifest capacity to understand the subtleties of Confederation, Stephen Harper has proved himself a thinker and a doer, a man who can set and sustain an agenda with grace and with humour – qualities that could easily deflect the slings and arrows of an often hard pressed press gallery. That he refuses to deploy either is all the more mysterious given a normally symbiotic relationship between the press and politicians. Moreover, he’ll need every quality he can muster to meet his real nemesis when it arrives, namely a fresh attempt to set the terms of a potential bid for Alberta separation.

You’d think that now that a western based party has some power, with prospects for gaining more, this issue would have disappeared but you’d be wrong, or at least partly wrong. Alberta separation today isn’t about leaving Confederation, it is about “refederating”, that is, leaving Confederation with a view to re-entering it on different terms. It’s a dangerous game that could instead result in defederation but the timing does seem auspicious for Alberta and the reform minded members of the Citizens’ Centre for Freedom and Democracy organizing The Calgary Congress – Restoring Responsible Government and exhorting the West to “force major change.”

Could this September gathering be a reprise of the Reform Party’s founding? Not quite, says its green and white insert in the May 22 issue of The Western Standard. “It will be like the famous Western Assembly that launched the Reform Party in 1987, except that instead of starting a new political party, the Congress will identify a short list of ‘National Principles’ that can stop Ottawa from ruining our country.”

Stephen Harper ruining the country? But aren’t we on the verge of serious national reform? “Well, maybe – and maybe not,” the insert hedges. “After two generations, the federal entitlement mentality in Canada runs very deep. Ottawa has become a gigantic transfer machine, the biggest of its kind anywhere in the world.”

No federal party will win elections by promising to cut transfer payments or refusing to play “by the old rules” so Harper needs help, the Congress promoters argue, and only the provinces but particularly Alberta can provide the impetus for the necessary reforms. And in a land where there’s plenty of the real thing, blue-skying will not be on the Calgary Congress agenda. From among an impressive lineup of speakers that include Ralph Klein and Preston Manning, three ‘National Principles’ will be presented. Designed “to shift Canada’s constitutional focus from rights and entitlements to productivity and achievement”, they call for provinces to initiate constitutional reforms and to finance their own futures. And if the congress’s provincialist aspirations aren’t clear enough, participants will debate and vote on a “Provincial Principle” that reduces next week’s equalization discussions in Edmonton to just another round of cutting up the cash by the usual suspects: “Ottawa must divest to the provinces the tax-room and responsibility for CPP, OAS, EI, the Health and Social Transfer, Equalization and federal job creation programs and agencies.”

“If any legislature (say Alberta’s) passes the National Principles as a formal constitutional amendment, if it fails to gain acceptance by other provinces and Parliament within the three-year deadline .., westerners could then validly hold a referendum on independence,” the insert concludes.

Never mind what Quebec could deduce from the Congress’s aims, for Stephen Harper, this variation on the “firewall” theme will confirm or test his prime ministerial agenda. Either way, the result won’t be good for the onetime regionalist now finding his federalist legs. Does he appease Alberta, where concern about appeasing Quebec grows, or look to the bigger picture?

To be sure Alberta separation is but a distant possibility. Indeed, the province’s last proposed Constitutional amendment on Senate reform fell flat. But determined candidates are available to replace Ralph Klein when he leaves office later this year and this Congress could furnish a new leader the hardball with which to challenge Ottawa. In a cruel twist of irony and like so many Quebec prime ministers before him, Stephen Harper could meet his nemesis in his own home province.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century