Stephen Harper’s open federalism changed Canada for the better

How Stephen Harper’s open federalism changed Canada for the better

Under Harper, Ottawa was no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health care, education and other provincial responsibilities

Outgoing prime minister Stephen Harper arrives at his Langevin office in Ottawa, Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. On his final day as prime minister, Harper reached out to a public service which his government had a tense relationship with for the last nine years.In a message sent to the entire government bureaucracy, he thanks them for the support they've shown his team over three successive Parliaments and for their dedication to the well-being of Canadians. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

(Adrian Wyld/CP)

Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer are authors of Ordered Liberty: How Harper’s Philosophy Transformed Canada for the Better, published by IRPP and were senior advisers to the Rt Hon. Stephen Harper.

There are few areas in which the Right Honourable Stephen Harper reshaped Canada more significantly than federalism. Federalism has been at the heart of his conservative vision from early intellectual development. He came to see it as the basis to reduce the size of the federal government, to accommodate different regional interests and priorities (including Quebec nationalism), and to further decentralize decision-making closer to the individual and family. It was one of the issues that most animated him, and his record in restoring a conception of classical federalism stems from this deep personal belief.

Harper had a long record of writing and speaking about Canadian federalism and the need to restore greater provincial and territorial autonomy prior to becoming prime minister. Indeed, with the two writers of this piece, he co-authored several newspaper op-eds in the early 2000s on the potential for a new “decentralist agenda” for Canada. He was also famously a co-signatory of the “Firewall Letter,” (again with one of us) which called on then-premier Ralph Klein to push back against the Liberal government in Ottawa’s centralizing vision with an “Alberta agenda.” His advocacy for classical federalism was long-standing.

It also has strong intellectual roots in Harper’s amalgam of classical liberalism and traditional or Burkean conservatism: a fusion we have dubbed “ordered liberty.” Classical liberals and Burkean conservatives may not find uniform agreement on every issue but federalism is certainly a point of convergence. A classical liberal would argue that local control is the best protection for individual liberty. It provides for greater choice and allows for an individual dissatisfied with local governance to migrate elsewhere. A conservative would share this preference for local control because he or she supports community action over centralized bureaucracy. It provides for local trial and error and experimentation over conformity. This intellectual basis was a major source of Harper’s vision of federalism in Canada.

But witnessing decades of federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction was also a powerful motivating factor. Successive Liberal governments had little interest in the actual responsibilities of the federal government and instead seemed more determined to dictate provincial policy decisions through new federal mandate and cost-shared programs.

Harper’s electoral victory in 2006 was in part a recoil against this centralizing vision. His commitment to “open federalism” distinguished him from the other party leaders. And he took significant steps to deliver on this vision during his time in office.

The first step was growing major transfer payments as he did in the 2007 budget. The budget provided $39 billion over seven years in incremental transfer payments to the provinces and territories and set out a vision of unconditional transfers distinct from the previous government’s modus operandi. The message was that the federal government would provide stable, predictable, long-term transfer payments and then it would be up to the provinces and territories to decide how best to use the funding. Critically, no new conditions would be placed on this new funding. Provinces could, by and large, spend as they saw fit.

The second step was to shift to equal per capita funding to the provinces. This was a principle that Harper had supported prior to becoming prime minister. He abhorred the idea that some provinces were “more equal than others,” as he put it, and believed that equal per capita payments⎯at least for the major transfer programs⎯was critical to restoring fairness to fiscal federalism. The 2007 budget shifted the Canada Social Transfer to an equal per capita payment in the immediate term and legislated that the Canada Health Transfer would assume an equal per capita formula when the Health Accord expired in 2013-14.

The third step came with the Harper government’s controversial decision not to negotiate a successor to the Health Accord. Instead the government announced its funding plan for 10 years beginning in 2014-15, and, with the exception of the Canada Health Act, imposed no new expectations or considerations. It is safe to say that it shocked the provincial governments. They had expected a long and protracted negotiation in which they would be able to work together to extract as much new funding from the federal government as possible. Indeed, the negotiation of the Health Accord had lasted late into the evening in 2004 and only ended when then-prime minister Martin ceded to most, if not all, of the premiers’ demands. Harper’s funding announcement, without new strings attached, left it to the provinces and territories to deliver health care without federal involvement.

The final step⎯at least with respect to major transfer payments⎯was to protect them while the government cut spending in order to eliminate the deficit. As discussed earlier, Harper’s deficit elimination plan focused on federal discretionary spending and left major transfer payments untouched—unlike his predecessors, who paid lip service to co-operative federalism but then implemented massive cuts to health and social transfers.

The result of Harper’s vision of classical federalism is that Ottawa was no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health care, education, and other provincial responsibilities. The separatist threat has never been at a lower level, and, as a result, national unity is stronger than it has been in several decades. Harper’s own conservative coalition has not frayed along regional lines as Mulroney’s did. It is a good example of his intellectual and political aptitudes and the useful marriage of his traditional conservative and classical liberal philosophical underpinnings.



How Stephen Harper’s open federalism changed Canada for the better

  1. Haven’t you guys managed to find new and respectable jobs yet?

    • Emily,

      the one thing you can be sure about with these gentlemen, is that they are so far above you in competency and intellect… would be a waste of their time to try and explain it to you. In fact, compared to them….you are simply a white rat in a lab.

      • Ahhh james,don’t you mean CONpetency and CONtellect?And the old stock rats in this situation went down with the harperCON ship???

    • Almost forgot…..

      The same comparison of Harper to Trudeau can also be made. Trudeau has the hair, but he has nothing below it.

      Harper is where you parked your vote for competence, Trudeau is where you put it if you live in fear, or anger.

      • You’ve got it backwards.
        Harper has the hair. What do you think he was paying the salary of a stylist for, shits n’ giggles? Harper knew that his supporters need simple visual cues, like hair that says ‘competent’ and ‘serious’, to understand the world.
        Any doubt about that was buried under the endless Conservative discussion of Trudeau’s hair.

        • An exciting news guys! Justin Trudeau has just been named by the Vogue Magazine as one of the 10 sexiest men alive. Isn’t that great?!? I am quoting from Huntington Post. Here is what Vogue’s Janelle Okwodu, had to say about his qualifications: “Sexy, feminist, and capable of balancing a baby on one hand Prime Minister Trudeau gets our vote,”
          When Mrs. Kemper forbade her son from entering the “not-so-sexy” 24 Sussex drive and then Mme. Sophie fired the “not-so-sexy” chef at 24 Sussex Drive, I knew that we as a nation were onto some of the sexiest happenings on this planet, and this country is just too small to advertise ourselves. If anybody ever gives me a chance to meet Putin of course, here is the only question I will ask of him: Can you balance a baby in one hand and still look sexy? And I won’t wait for his answer. I will just tell him ” Well, You can’t, Mr. Putin, so shut up and listen to our PM”

          • Yes. Trudeau isn’t serious because Vogue considers him “sexy”. Exactly what I was saying.
            By the way, who are you quoting here?: “not-so-sexy”

      • And the wars on drugs,science,terror are now over and the harperCON agenda is back fermenting in the tar ponds with the rest of the tar party!!!!

  2. “Harper’s electoral victory in 2006 was in part a recoil against this centralizing vision.” Which amounted to, two minorities and a majority that, Tom Flanagan predicted many years before, would amount to . . . just one. That was one hell of a “recoil”.

  3. “The final step, at least with respect to major transfer payments, was to protect them while the government cut spending in order to eliminate the deficit. As discussed earlier, Harper’s deficit elimination plan focused on federal discretionary spending and left major transfer payments untouched—unlike his predecessors, who paid lip service to co-operative federalism but then implemented massive cuts to health and social transfers.”
    “Harper’s vision of classical federalism is that Ottawa was no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health care, education, and other provincial responsibilities. The separatist threat has never been at a lower level, and, as a result, national unity is stronger than it has been in several decades”.
    How true these statements are, yet unfortunately, these are the very things that scared special interest groups and separatists who saw their power continuously dwindling in a vicious spiral. The result was the unholy alliance among, separatists, socialists, unions and journalists who would cover each other’s tracks but were determined to enthrone “anybody but Harper”. Never once did the media point out that all the monies the Liberals and NDPers were promising had already been assured and the Federal Government would have no role in regulating the expenditure. Pointing out this single fact would have exposed the (then) opposition for who they were! But then again, why would they do it? They had to get Harper out of the way regardless of the harm done to the Nation.

    • Exactly T. Kanthia!

  4. Typical Conservative navel gazing idiocy. Instead of figuring out the reasons you got clobbered, you continue to say how right and smart you are. If you did everything right, why are you not still in power?

  5. Self-serving drivel written in an attempt to justify years of destructive governance.

  6. “Sanctimonious” sums up everything about the Harper CPC. Deflecting legitimate criticism by accusing your adversary of your own shortcomings is a well-worn playground ploy.

    • “Pathetic”, I would say regardless of whom you were trying to respond to. The article itself was a high level academic discussion of certain philosophical aspects of policy formulation. It can be analyzed from various angles. From absolute centralization to absolute decentralization and everything in between, there are hundreds of poles and pillars to lean onto when we want to put in our two cents worth of criticisms or commendations into that discussion. There is nothing wrong about it. To the contrary, it would be a privilege. But the kind of remarks that you were spitting out won’t be heard at that level.
      If you had tried to focus on my remarks and had thought of me as the Party organ of CPC, then I would have to say you had missed the mark completely. It is also possible that perhaps irritated by the way events are unfolding in the post-election period, your sanity might be undergoing stress too. I have been a card carrying member of Liberals for over 20 years, but never voted for them. I have been an NDP supporter for a year and a half and contributed to party funds, but Tom Mulcair scared me so much, I didn’t dare to go near the polling booth. The only thing that I can say for myself is that I am much more observant than you ever will be not to notice what was happening in the interregnum between the drop of the warrant and the Election Day. And, I am intelligent enough to deduce the reasons for the failure of the democratic process in past election.
      There are many reasons for that failure and none of them can be ascribed to Harper himself. For your benefit, I will try to enunciate some of the reasons as to why the CPC failed to win the votes. In a nation that is absolutely dependent of multi-party democracy for governance, the tactic of “strategic voting” is a flagrant violation of the spirit of elections and should have been made a crime when election laws were reformed. At least, it should have been possible to examine the election-financing implications of such an exercise. But my harshest criticism in this regard would have to be reserved for the profession of journalism, if at all, if you can still consider them professionals. They didn’t think that impact of their unabashed naked campaign strategies did have an opportunity cost and certainly that cost falls under the purview of election financing laws. Everyone including the journalist can and will have his/her own vision of an “Ideal Canada”. Obviously he/she will support the party that comes closest to his/her vision. Therefore, it is not wrong to lean towards a party and to vote for it on the Election Day. But the way we understand it in Canada, journalism is a profession – a profession that has much more protection than any other profession under our Charter of Human Rights and the laws of the Land. And journalists have job to do which they forget more often than not. They forget that their special privileges carry an onerous responsibility too. Their affiliation and their allegiance are to their particular union and not to the Country. What is missing here is Code of Ethics that the journalists have to adhere to. And, unlike the other professions, there is no self-regulating body that can impose sanctions on erring journalists. The result is that journalism is no more a profession, it is just another day job – something with which to eke out a living. Of the many important issues that formed the undercurrent of this election, none got a proper airing – not the pros and cons of the several trade pacts that were on the table, not the propriety or impropriety of deployment of F-18, not a reasonable approach to our external security threats, not the logistics of bringing in 25,000 refugees within a two months’ period, not of the alternatives offered to protect the millions of job if we are to demolish the oil-dependent economy overnight, not the costing of the party platforms, not the rationale behind throwing billions of Government funds into unspecific economy-spurring activities in a market-driven free enterprise economy and there are many more. I could go on elaborating, but what is the point. One man broke the law of the Land without any consequences and now he will be in charge making further Laws for the land. Another spent a million dollars or more of public funds in party work. Think of it as one party getting privileged party financing from the state coffers to the exclusion of other parties! There was no analysis of any of it in the media and no further consequences for the perpetrators.
      Harper had tried to ape the Liberals and appointed two former journalists who had subscribed to the “apparently normal” behavior of that August Chamber and ever since, the only discussion in the new media had been not about the fact that it is not an easy fix, that Harper had done everything humanly possible from the fiasco and the matter is in the hands of Courts now. The discussion in the media had been as if it was only Harper who was involved and that he had tried to buy milk food for his children with that couple of hundred thousand dollars. I am not endorsing everything that Harper did here. For example, in order to prove his innocence of the Senate fiasco beyond any doubts, Harper fired the only man who seems to have done the right thing. That tactic did more harm than good. One’s obligation to pay up his debts to the Consolidated Fund is the most sacred one and comes atop all other obligations. It is not at all, a crime or a bribery to induce someone to pay up his dues to Consolidated Fund, – certainly not when it was done with his own hard-earned money, and the person who did it, wasn’t envisioning a political office or any other self-aggrandizement scheme for himself. Mr. Harper, you lost out to the wolf-pack of journalists in this “not-so-brilliant” moment of an otherwise wonderful time in Office. Perhaps, someday, everyone will realize their folly of trying to burn Nigel at the stake and that day is not very far.
      Always bear in mind that it is normal for Political Parties to win or lose elections. Elections are meant for that. Change is always desirable but not in a foolish “change for the sake of change” way. The voters do not have to give a reason give anyone for their choice at the ballot box; but no effort should be spared to inform them fully of all the pros and cons that come into play at that momentous moment. Right now, due to a failed process, we have a man at the helms, who lacks in specifics, haven’t got much for protocols, haven’t got an idea as to how things are done when in Government and still talks so volubly and incessantly. Isn’t it baffling then that so many of the Liberal faithful get so worked up when even the most obvious ones of the legitimate concerns are given an airing?
      I do not care if the CPC lost it. All I care is that people were unfairly deprived of their legitimate right to elect a Government that they fully deserve. And the tragedy of it is that no one can be held responsible for it.

  7. How Stephen Harper’s open federalism changed Canada for the better- His government of lies and deception resulted in NO Conservative provincial/federal governments in Canada for first time in 70 years.
    I am sure the Conservative Party executives across the country are plotting future election strategies to circumvent any mention of Stephen Whats-his-name. Lyin` Brian looks to be Conservatives` only choice if they need poster boy from the not to distant past. Good luck with that!
    I often wondered if the close friends and family members of the MPs Harper kept parading in front of tv cameras reciting the “lie of the day” were embarrassed for them.

  8. Upon seeing the name Ken Boessenkool, (who is, horrifyingly, a husband and the father of daughters) no decent person would continue reading or ever grant Boessenkool any kind of audience. Full stop.

    What Boessenkool did to that young woman was so horrifying that he was required to immediately absent himself from taxpayer-funded employment … … for reasons that were hushed up and erased in accordance with BC Premier Christy Clark government’s criminal-investigation worthy and morally horrifying “triple delete” policy.

    That Boessenkool gains advantage from this triple-delete policy that hides what he did, to continue his political career, will now pretty well always vindicate the worst suspicions about what Boessenkool did. Those suspicions can never be put to rest. That is the sting and stink of the triple-delete policy, that will always follow Boessenkool, forever.

    So there is one definitive truth … that the evidence against Boessenkool was so damaging that criminal-level measures had to be taken, meaning that evidence against him was eliminated. That leads to a second definitive truth … there could not be anything good about the political party that would keep him as a member in good standing, or bask in his praise. Boessenkool can never prove that he is otherwise than amongst the worst of husbands, father-of-daughters, and the worst kind of man and human being, That is the legacy of the dishonourable system that had the evidence erased, a dishonourable system in which Boessenkool also played a senior advisory role.

    Self-styled “senior advisor” Boessenkool is just one of the kind of company that Harper likes to keep, along with the Ford brothers, Lynton Crosby, Jenny Byrne, et al. Canadians heaved in disgust and heaved them out.

  9. “…and to further decentralize decision-making closer to the individual and family…”

    Nice rhetoric but when the level of government closest to ‘the individual and family’ gets the least attention from these same people ie. the municipal/local level of governments, it seems to me that the federal government which gets the most attention from people is really the one they care about and consider to be the closer to them.

    • Municipal and local governments are not considered organs of Federal Government, even though the Federal Governments do step in every now and then to alleviate their financial concerns. These institutions are not even considered full fledged authorities in their own right. They are just extension of the Provincial jurisdiction.

  10. “The result of Harper’s vision of classical federalism is that Ottawa was no longer the voice of sanctimoniousness and unhelpful intrusions into health care, education, and other provincial responsibilities.”

    That health care is even a provincial responsibility is only the result of a constitution that was crafted with no idea of both the demands of health care in the modern age or how it would be structured in most of the developed world at this time.

    It is not a provincial responsibility by any right than an accident of history and perhaps if it were a federal responsibility the country would be better off especially given that the federal government also is the only one with the wide ranging revenue tools to properly support it.

    • Probably true but it is not happening anytime soon. Like the Senate reform, the Centralized Regulating Authority for the Financial Markets, and a host of other issues, this will also stay unresolved for ever and ever. Constitutional bargaining is that hard!
      You will see that the Provinces have always defended and aggressively sought additional powers for themselves. This has been exacerbated by a Supreme Court that failed to act as a visionary but had gone out of its way to weaken the authority in the center and strengthening the hands of Provinces. Its judgements in the matters of Senate reform, even a voluntary cooperation on an Authority for the Financial Markets, and its going out of the way to dismiss the Federal standing in a case that pitted Ontario against certain aboriginal communities, these are all examples of why change in Canada is hard, if not next to impossible.
      Additional complication is brought about by Quebec doing its own thing in most of these matters. When one powerful Province decides to do its own things and you force the other ones to stick to a central guideline, it created an unofficial asymmetric federalism which again is going induce the Provinces to challenge the Federal authority. Any meeting of all Provinces together will bring in acrimonious debates which ultimately serve only to weaken the federal authority. If the Healthcare is brought under exclusive federal control, it would immensely benefit all concerned. The single idea of transportability of health care between provinces alone would alleviate untold sufferings. Centralization of education in a federal system would ensure uniform quality and reduced administrative costs in academic and vocational training programs. A centralized financial markets authority would provide stability and bring in trillions of dollars in foreign investment. But, right now, the Federal Government cannot have its own say in reforming one of its own institutions, namely the Senate, so none of the above is going to happen.
      Harper was a man of definite ideas but he was also pragmatist who instead of focusing on his own ideas in a dogmatic fashion, would keep discovering new ways to do things in an altered environment. Forced by circumstances, he ignored the things that escaped fixing and concentrated on the one thing he did best, namely institutional administrative efficiency. I would say he did succeed magnificently in that one!

    • J.Edwards,

      the Constitution isn’t perfect, but the folks who crafted it were fairly bright, as they realized the country wouldn’t last very long if a centralized Governemnt tried to strong-arm their way into the lives of folks who lived thousands of miles away.

      Can you imagine the horror if someone like Trudeau and Gerald Butts had the final say over your health, education, and spending? Look what Butts’ ideas have done for Ontario. We don’t want to see that level of incompetence thorughout Canada.

  11. Good grief! Ken Boessenkool? He had to resign from the BC Liberal (read Socred/Reform/Alliance) party because of inappropriate behaviour in a Victoria bar.

    Sorry, I would not give this “man” the time of day, let alone respect his opinion.

  12. Priceless piece of satire!

    • Easy to see why he wouldn’t care for sanctimony-or honour-or principle,

      Macleans should have triple deleted this lizard.

  13. Is this the Onion? … I can’t believe you have people that believe this b.s.

    Harper lied consistently and pulled 180’s on his pre Prime Minister days… The guy was never a Conservative … he has always been a Reformist and did next to nothing to Better Canada. … He will go down in history as the second worst Prime Minister of all time. You lost lambs will not be able to change that with all the spin you can muster.

    Move on.

  14. It must be of some comfort to Harper, since being trounced by Canadians, to see fawning cultists sending out these dogmatic love letters to Canadians. Why McLean’s feels it needs to supply the space for those who are trying to convince us that Harper was worthy of the position of Prime Minister is questionable journalism at best. The Boessenkools and Speers of the world will probably never understand why they lost or how hated Harper’s policies and actions were to most Canadians.

    The Harper Government will be used in future political science classes as the “how NOT to” guide to being a political leader, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush and now Harper. All leaders who left a wide path of destruction in their wake. Yet Bosessenkool and Speer write a book and articles trying to defend their cult of Harper Neoliberalism. Step out of your bubble boys and learn why your team lost instead of fawning over the past which Canadian’s overwhelmingly rejected.

    • The folks who appreciate what Harper has done, are the folks who understand items such as economics, fiscal policy, monetary policy (and how to work around it) etc.

      harper was a policy wonk…those who hate harper, are not.