The Provinces are the Real Winners in this Election
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, June 26, 2004

From Dalton McGuinty’s budget arose a primal scream that opened the door for a West wanting in. Now riding the backlash against a scandal-ridden national government and broken provincial promises, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are poised for a break through in Ontario and an historic entry if not to government, then something very close to it.

Either way, what they find may not be the promised land they covet. Both the parliamentary dynamics of a minority situation and fundamental shifts in the federation mitigate against real satisfaction for the deserving leader and his party. Worse, what should have been an election that addressed western alienation could instead exacerbate it.

First off, all indications are that no party will win a majority of seats in Monday’s election. In this eventuality and to the general incredulity of western Canadians, parliamentary convention dictates that the Governor General offer the Liberal prime minister the first opportunity to form a government, even if he has fewer seats than the Conservatives. Wisely, Paul Martin has implied he would refuse this offer even though, as the redoubtable Conservative MP John Reynolds has suggested, many Liberals might support a Conservative government at least until they replaced their leader.

In the short term anyway, such a move serves Martin in two ways. It atones for his craven challenge to Alberta premier Ralph Klein’s health care reforms. All in the name of winning in Ontario, Martin served notice which part of the country is most important to him. It also sets up and extends to the Conservatives a rope with which they could hang themselves. In this eventuality, the Governor General could ask Martin to step in and save the day.

After all, Ralph Klein, by signaling his health-care reforms while the election is still underway, placed the gauntlet before Harper too. Such reforms, expected by some to focus on user fees, medical savings accounts and deductibles, may be illegal under Canada’s Health Act.

And this may be just the beginning. The findings of Klein’s Commission on Strengthening Alberta’s Role in Confederation could also challenge a new federal government. Among the issues it explored at town hall meetings last winter was whether the constitutional change necessary to create a Triple E (elected, equal and effective) Senate is preferable to the non-constitutional change required for the Prime Minister to appoint Senators from a list provided by the provinces.

A decision by Albertans for non-constitutional change could challenge Harper’s stand on appointing directly elected Senators. Though Klein’s list needn’t preclude elected Senators (who could be answerable to their provinces through their legislatures) direct elections would inevitably set the stage for conflict between the House of Commons, provincial legislatures and the Senate.

Whatever parliamentary configuration arises after Monday’s election, these events, like the tone and tenor of this federal election itself, are the true and ominous signs of the times.

Not since the Charlottetown Accord has Canada approached voting day with so great a sense of finality. The long anticipated death of the Old Canada cronyism and scandal that reached their zenith in the Mulroney-Chretien era is now at hand. A new Conservative party is emerging from its ten year metamorphosis even as the Liberal party embarks on the catharsis and transformation Paul Martin seems unable, single handedly and in so short a time frame, to achieve. In the meantime, Gilles Duceppe positions to reinvent the separatist movement in Quebec.

With a revitalized New Democratic Party pushing for electoral reform and the Green Party poised for a breakthrough, possibly in Saanich Gulf Islands, it can only be noted with passing regret that the two party system that served to broker Canada’s regional differences may also disappear.

Like McGuinty at the beginning of the federal election, Ralph Klein this week signaled the power of the province. Alone or with others in their overarching Council of the Federation, it is seizing the national agenda. Whatever Paul Martin says, health-care reform will be dictated by the provinces. Whatever Stephen Harper says, meaningful reform of the Senate will arise only from the provinces.

The epicenter of the federation has shifted. The oncoming months of minority government will reveal the party best suited to help determine its new parameters. As Canada gains her footing in the 21st century, this is as it should be. It’s time.

Margret Kopala’s column on western perspectives appears weekly.

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