The Manning-Harris, Ignatieff papers
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, April 23, 2005

The Liberal party death throes are painful to behold bringing, as they do, so much shame and anger upon the land.

The Gomery gnashings ensure a protracted demise, something an early or even later election call is unlikely to hasten. After all, an election could produce another minority government then, soon after, another election. When will it end? How will it end?

Mercifully, two important documents have emerged to suggest ways in which the beleaguered Canadian phoenix may pick itself up, dust itself off and, if not rise from the ashes, at least start all over again.

In the first of two recent presentations which promise to frame the debate on Canada’s post-Gomery future, Harvard scholar Michael Ignatieff warned an audience at Osgoode Hall School last week of an impending constitutional crisis. Canada’s federal political parties are little more than election machines and regional interest groups, he said, rather than coalition builders with overarching ideas.

With the election of a separatist government in Quebec now pre-ordained, the Clarity Bill will provide the procedures by which it may secure an “unequivocally clear result – in favour of separation.” And thanks to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, patriation and referenda, he added, “Constitutional weariness is the chief danger to the national unity of our country.”

Now, with new demands on the equalization formula from several provinces, the constitutional crisis is rapidly becoming systemic. His answer: continuing constitutional dialogue and a Royal Commission on fiscal federalism.

Also last week, Vancouver’s Fraser Institute launched its first instalment of the long awaited Manning-Harris papers entitled “A Canada Strong and Free”.

The former Reform party leader and premier of Ontario have joined forces to combine the best of the new conservative thinking in the West and Ontario with the most recent economic, electoral and social policy studies. Where Ignatieff provides lofty warnings about constitutional crises, Manning and Harris provide upbeat prescriptions for reviving the country’s economy and governance structures.

If Canada is to obtain the world’s highest quality of life and best governed federation, they say, the most important prerequisites will be “a dramatic expansion of freedom of choice in every dimension of Canadian life” and a “greater acceptance … of the responsibilities and obligations that attend any expansion or exercise of freedom.” Freedom cannot exist without personal responsibility. “As the state assumes more and more responsibility, our freedom and personal choices are eroded… if individuals do not bear the consequences of bad choices, more people will make them and the rest of us will be forced to bear the burden.”

This vision statement sets the stage, then, for ideas about expanding the economy and reducing the size of government. The need for this becomes self evident if you consider, as Manning and Harris do, that 40% of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product is in the hands of government through public ownership and taxation. Inevitably, this lowers productivity and living standards.

One answer, they say, is to implement the subsidiarity principle which maintains that essential services are best delivered by the level of government closest to those receiving them. In this light, the notion that the federal government should get out of the health care field makes considerable sense.

Another answer is to move $300 billion in national income out of the hands of government and into the hands of businesses and families to “substantially increase personal incomes, job opportunities, and standard of living …”

In the end, though, the Manning-Harris and Ignatieff papers are just a start. On health care, for instance, the former doesn’t begin to approximate the detail and workability of the Kirby-Keon single-payer, private-public delivery model while the latter’s call for more constitutional dialogue ignores immense problems concerning process. If executive federalism doomed the Meech Lake Accord and constitutional conferences did little to promote or salvage Charlottetown, what could possibly work now? Neither does Ignatieff offer any proposals for restoring the political party to its proper role as a vehicle for ideas.

Whatever their deficiencies, these papers provide much needed relief from today’s morass of scandal and partisan back biting. They also credibly position Ignatieff as a future Liberal leadership candidate and re-position Mike Harris, now formidably allied with Preston Manning, as a future Conservative leader. In the meantime and thanks to these three men, the Canadian phoenix may yet again rise to hold its head a little bit higher.

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

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