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Harper and the death (for now) of executive federalism

BY PAUL WELLS


 

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One sign of Canada’s slow progression away from its worst excesses is that Ottawa reporters no longer even pay much attention to the functioning of our federal processes and institutions. When I got here in 1994 and the (even) older hands showed me around the Gazette office, one of the first things they pointed out was the sofa they’d bought in 1990 for power-napping during the round-the-clock first ministers’ pow-wows Brian Mulroney convened to save the Meech Lake accord. Premiers would arrive for dinner and stay for days, to their dismay. And as the CBC-Globe axis of grimness would repeat, The Very Fate of The Nation depended on every instant.

Today Stephen Harper met the premiers, and nothing happened. This is a kind of innovation, and much has happened to get us to this point.

Recall that Dominion-Provincial conferences were already old hat by the time Pierre Trudeau became Lester Pearson’s justice minister in the mid-’60s. First under Pearson and then as Prime Minister, Trudeau would turn such pow-wows into an art form. Driven partly by business Trudeau had left unfinished and largely by a desire to beat Trudeau on Trudeau’s own turf, Mulroney multiplied his high-tension marathon meetings with the provinces.

In 1980 Donald Smiley coined a term for all of this: Executive federalism, defined as “the relation between elected and appointed officials of the two orders of government.” Dalhousie University professor Jennifer Smith was not alone when she perceived “the unmistakable whiff of elitism” in all this: “The few public meetings between elected leaders — the summits — have a stage-managed air about them, and generally are carefully orchestrated by officials behind the scenes.”

But each of the last three prime ministers has introduced important variations on Trudeau-Mulroney-style executive federalism. Jean Chrétien broke the habit. Paul Martin, who had spent his entire adult life watching Trudeau-Mulroney federalism and was fond of whatever Chrétien opposed, sought to re-establish the old ways. Harper has been the most surprising.

In some ways it seemed as though Chrétien had quit executive federalism cold turkey; he was elected only a year after the Charlottetown referendum and he seemed amazingly aloof from the provinces when he started out. In fact he had a simple rule: he would only meet the premiers if success was assured. No more marathon negotiations would be allowed. Deals would be pre-cooked by officials. Chrétien would only call a meeting when there was nothing left to do but sign — or when a deal was close enough that a little prime ministerial elbow grease would close the remaining gaps. It brought the temperature of federal-provincial relations down and it was tremendously reassuring, because for three years before Chrétien came along Canadians had gotten used to a guarantee of failure, not success, in federal-provincial relations.

But it’s important to point out that Chrétien’s relations with the premiers weren’t nearly as aloof as they seemed at the time. First, he’d spend a week on the road with most of them every year, at the front of the plane during the Team Canada trade missions. A lot of federal-provincial business got transacted on those trips. There’s a PhD thesis awaiting anyone who wants to study that phenomenon.

Second, Chrétien’s cuts in transfers to the provinces, whether necessary or not, put tremendous strain on federal-provincial relations and made a string of formal fed-prov meetings essentially inevitable. One of the most surprising factoids in Chrétien’s autobiography is the revelation that during a decade as PM, he met his provincial colleagues seven times in formal meetings.

Still there was no regularity or predictable rhythm to the meetings and it was reasonable for Paul Martin to promise greater frequency and collegiality. He tried hard to deliver. Where Chrétien had preferred meetings to be pre-cooked by mandarins, Martin wanted preparation kept to a minimum because he was romantic about the give-and-take around the conference table. This brought a return to tension, improvisation and exploding timetables. At first Martin thought he could also insert democratic scrutiny into the process by insisting that these meetings had to take place live on camera. When the premiers dismissed that idea outright, Martin relented and was, forever after, very upset when reporters reminded him of his original intentions.

Still, Martin’s heart was in the right place. Chrétien had no normal, routine working relations with the premiers. Martin wanted to change that, and at least his ambition — convening the boys to fix health care, fiscal federalism and aboriginal relations — was laudable.

Harper was supposed to be province-friendly, and in one big way — the scale of federal transfers to the provinces — he’s been friendly enough to choke a horse. But he hasn’t been sociable. He had the premiers over for dinner a couple of months after becoming PM and decided he didn’t like the 13-to-1 odds one bit. Harper’s dealings with the premiers since then have been characterized by conspicuous effort to drive expectations down as low as they will go, and to wrong-foot the premiers so they cannot arrive with a coordinated joint agenda of demands. If Chrétien would only meet if results were guaranteed, and Martin only if drama was guaranteed, Harper meets only if drama and results are banished. He meets the premiers to see them close up and to hear them out. And that’s it. Decisions come later — or earlier, without warning, with a goal to pre-empting whatever they’re planning to demand, a trick I suspect he’ll use before next January’s “real” FMM.

I should say I mean no criticism of any of these prime ministers, although as you can tell, with Martin it’s hard to resist. Each was responding to the pathologies of his predecessor’s manner, and the changes of style may each, in most cases, have been necessary and helpful. But I’m warming to Harper’s way of doing things. Executive federalism does take decisions away from direct mechanisms for accountability. It does inflate the importance of the day’s agenda item and discourage perspective. It encourages the two levels of government to get into each other’s hair. The first ministers’ meeting, with its grandstanding, its one-upmanship, its hasty compromises, has been viewed as a necessary evil of Canadian federalism. It’s fascinating to watch Harper demur.


 

Harper and the death (for now) of executive federalism

  1. Excellent writing, as usual, PW. Minor nitpick: there appears to be some dropped text in paragraph one: “to their dismay and accompanied by the and as the CBC-Globe axis of grimness would repeat…” Feel free to insert the missing text and remove this comment. Thx.

  2. Ah. It’s hard to write about federalism without nodding off. I’ll try to figure out what I meant….

  3. Fixed. I was going to insert a digression, but the bloody post is long enough without it.

  4. What will be interesting now is the shape-up to the January meeting.

    This is the first time provinces have had fair warning AND an agenda topic: the economy. They also have the benefit of today’s meeting to help prepare. Atlantic Premiers will meet in December as well so that could help at least four provinces gather their points together.

    The Provinces will also take note of the Speech from the Throne and try and mirror their own priorities (money demands) to match the listed priorities within the speech.

    The next FMM will not catch premiers off guard, and will indeed have some major prep work before hand. Expectations will likely be much higher than normal (depending on the state of the economy by then). It’s the exact opposite situation that Harper normally prefers.

  5. Good for Harper, and good for you, Paul, for pointing out this quiet revolution and explaining it so lucidly. How nice to have a piece of good news.

  6. Of course I reserve the right to change my mind entirely.

  7. “Bloody post” seriously underestimates the appeal (to this reader, anyways) of reading the minds of the many Macleans contributors who share their thoughts on the fly here at Blog Central — sort of a rough draft of “the rough draft of history.” And the appeal of bypassing a “letter-to-the-editor” approach by quick-posting these comments directly to the talent at Macleans.

    All this to say thanks for the opportunity, from someone who has followed your writing from the Gazette to the Post to here, and who would never have dreamed of the possible conversations with you before Blog Central.

    Now, if only Mr. Potter would shake off one unfortunate posting to re-open comments on his many interesting posts, and if only Mr. Coyne would post a little more often. Demanding? Moi? Nah…

  8. Maybe if Coyne could comment on Potter’s posts? Heaven…

  9. MYL, agreed. I’ve had a dozen or so Letters published at the Globe in the past few years and since I discovered Maclean’s online I’ve had no desire to keep writing them. I suppose the venting is more instantaneous, but most of all one doesn’t have to kow-tow to the simpleminded morality of the Globe’s readership. In fact I can barely tolerate reading the Globe as a whole anymore. Except for Salutin and Simpson and a couple of others, everyone there seems to write as though someone — I suppose the bourgeoisie — were looking over their shoulder. I know online readers aren’t statistically very significant for Maclean’s’ circulation (yet!), but Blog Central and the whole site strike me as a major milestone in Canadian journalism: forward-thinking, innovative, candid, streamlined, and most of all original.

  10. Little do they know that when Kady, Wells or even Coyne respond to us, it’s really a sophisticated program which scans comments for certain keywords and posts slight variations from a store of stock responses.

  11. I took an intergovernmental relations course with Patrick Fafard at uOttawa last year and wrote my paper on the unique perils of attempting to balance Open Federalism with the feds response to the potential of Ontario becoming a have not province. At the time it was only a potential situation, but Harper wasn’t scheduling any meetings at the time. Has the change in the macro situation prompted this meeting…what other way does the Prime Minister have to visibly show he’s dealing with the siltation? Or is this a shift in strategy with regards to dealing with provinces because Danny froze him out? Both?

  12. I suspect Harper has no problem dealing with the provinces. He’d just rather not deal with the people who run them. Which makes for a situation that could get increasingly uncomfortable over time.

    In any case, a posting with good perspective. Thanks.

    Oh, and it’s good to see you modify Chretien’s cuts with “whether necessary or not”. History has a way of conferring inevitability on things that were not necessarily inevitable.

  13. If they’ve pulled that off, they’ve certainly passed the Turing test, and my hat would be off to Macleans.

  14. Paul Wells saying a kind thing about a Conservative government! I’d say more but I have to call 911 because of a sudden heart malfunction.

  15. Thank-you for the trip down memory lane! Can I tell about 1982? I took a Grade 13 Canadian History class with Mr. Walker. That class was my joy, the only course of study beyond the maths that truly engaged me while in public school. 1982 was an exciting time to study Canadian history (perhaps your memory has logged the changes made to Ontario highschool curriculum in and around those years that removed Canadian history from the Grade 10-12 streams and replaced those courses with American history). Indeed the public interest in the workings of government at that time would appear to have spooked the Governor General who subsequent to it made Canadian History an elite subject.

    In one highly graded paper I defended the thesis that changes to the BNA Act and entrenchment of the Charter meant that Quebec had lost it’s special status under Confederation. I did read Donald Smiley’s historiography at that time, the work you refer to above. It was exciting to read such high quality historiography. ‘Executive Federalism’ describes the division of legislative powers within Canada. I think that meetings of the elected premiers are not ‘part-and-parcel’ ‘executive federalism’ as defined by Smiley.

    To complete my memory of that year, I recall that our history teacher, Mr. Walker took us on a field trip to the University of Toronto. I was so excited, the academics I had only read were there! We sat through a lecture by Stephen Lewis. His pedantic freakish oration and the inerudite suppositions of his talk made my jaw drop! After the lecture Mr. Walker took me to meet Stephen Lewis. He said “This is my brilliant student Karen Krisfalusi, she will be one of Canada’s great historians one day”. Lewis was so rude and dismissive. I did study history for a time at McMaster with the same feedback from Professor Capadocia. Yet the academics, the whole crew of them, seemed a corrupted lot. Canada, overall, has slid from correct academic interpretation of its own system and your piece here is some evidence of that. I mean, you are a parliamentary reporter and a writer and yet you mislead not just a little with your reference to Smiley’s work. This type of finagling is all around.

  16. Reported in The National Post yesterday: “Only Quebec Premier Jean Charest brought up equalization although there was no substantive discussion on that topic. Several premiers said that potentially divisive issue was best left for another meeting.”

    Recounted by Kenneth McDonald in His Pride, Our Fall: Recovering from the Trudeau Era” :
    This is a good place to describe the mechanics of that “one last time conference”.
    There were no parliamentary rules of debate. The Prime Minister set the agenda, and he was in charge. Thus having been opposed all morning by a majority of the premiers, Mr. Trudeau simply adjourned the meeting for lunch and afterwards went straight to discuss his proposal, clause by clause. Quebec Premier René Lévesque, representing over a quarter of the country’s population, became one of eleven equal first ministers.
    Quebec’s refusal to sign was based on solid ground. Donald Smiley, for over three decades one of Canada’s leading scholars and teachers in Canadian political science, regarded the Act as nothing less than a betrayal of Quebec. It was “an integral part of a general initiative from Ottawa towards a more highly centralized federal system…the Charter is inherently fragmenting rather than a unifying measure…the defense of rights centres on conflict rather than cooperation.”

    And then from “Cabinets and First Ministers” by Graham White:
    Executive federalism primarily refers to intergovernmental bargaining — almost invariably conducted in private — with less concern for the formal niceties of jurisdictional boundaries than for political accomodation. … On balance the growth of central agencies probably dimishes democracy and the practice of executive federalism almost certainly does so.

    Karen:
    Recent history reminds us that the Bloc Quebecois holds the balance of power. This reign of democratic power began when Trudeau used his executive powers illegally. A federal election recently undertaken by Stephen Harper to try to weaken the Bloc (which by definition asserts provincial powers exclusively) has shown that in Canada democratically elected powers and forms continue to assert the first claim in disputes over jurisdiction. Plebiscite votes in 1982 and 1995 and the Quebec and Aboriginal democratic self-governments of Canada argue that Executive Federalism does not have the reach that Smiley and Graham confer on it. Contrary to Smiley’s prediction in federalism that the Charter would have a fragmenting affect on Federalism, in fact the Charter has unified the common laws at all levels of government (though not, in my opinion, to the best benefit of Canadians) and the Federal program to resolve the bi-jural conflicts in Federal law toward making all Federal Statutes conform to Quebec Civil law is also potently unifying.

  17. I see that if you post twice in a row your comment awaits moderation. Can I request that there be “a guide to our policy of comment moderation”. Automatic or otherwise.

    Recently you closed a discussion thread, the one related to the kidnapping of Melissa Fung. Your moderation resonated with me for two reasons: 1) The entire cache of Maclean’s articles had recently (by obvious executive decision) been opened to full comment, and 2) The moderator placed blame for incorrect conduct on the reading/commenting public.

    Mr. Wells. can I draw your attention to this CTV news report of the same day as your report. The comment threads attending each carry the same themes, themes of discussion that appear to have disturbed your editor’s sensibilites into the realm of undue censorship. “What a mess” you said. It was clear you thought the commenters talked too much of about the media secrecy issue and showed too little empathy for the plight of Ms. Fung and that the small debate/squabbles showed bad tone.

    It is notable that both the Maclean’s news item and the CTV news item led with the secrecy aspect! Anyone reading those reports would know, that on that news day, many reporters were more focused on getting out the word that the word was out, than getting out the fact that Melissa Fung was out! If you look up other reports of her kidnapping from other countries around the world the reporting of the protective media secrecy that surrounded Ms. Fung was buried near the end of reports of her release.

    Comment threads are a mirror for issues that the writers/reporters bring to bear. The public is always right! I think that if Macleans is truly invested in full comment, they should invest in tranparent moderation. Closed comment threads should carry a published attribute of ‘why’.

    I’m still thinking on about how Canadian government is interpreted by academics. As in this book that makes this sort of claim: The executive dominance so imbedded in Canadian governments has contributed to their ability to adopt and implement certain controversial redistributive policies, such as a national health insurance program..

    Any Canadian (with the possible exception of Elizabeth May) can tell you that Healthcare is always a number one election issue and that is the only reason why our single payor system continues. There is no guarantee of it in Canadian law and executive powers of government work against it but they cannot succeed! Only long arcs of grassroots action of the elites can unseat such a potent democratic election issue.

  18. Gosh, Karen, sounds like you would have been right at home with your peeps if you had stuck it out.

    PW, this was a particularly interesting post, among what is a consistently high level of online reflection. I echo the sentiments further above, apart from usual throwaway partisan cracks. I have been following your work for some time and you simply observe – through whatever your personal “filter” may be, as the academics say – and report. The caustic or cutting or humourous asides just add a bit of flavour I appreciate. If (insert party/PM/Leader name here) gets a shot, they usually deserve it.

  19. I did not want to leave a remark but after I read how you were warming to Harper’s way of doing things I could not let that go unaddressed. Such a laid back attitude is a VERY dangerous stance to take when it comes to Stephan Harper. Despite the lack of theater and mellow drama, and regardless of how seemingly unproductive those attributes of the past may have seemed or how soothing and relaxed the atmosphere seems to be, whenever Harper does anything you should be waiting for the sky to fall.
    You mentioned in last line of the second to last paragraph about how some of Harper’s decisions came without warning. This speaks to one very important fact. In truth the REALLY important decisions that Harper makes come less with out warning than they do without declaration. This secretive behind the scenes decision making that announces the decision some protracted period of time after they’re a done deal via back channels with no public oversight is VERY dangerous and has been the hallmark of his time as a political figure in this nation. I don’t know about you but I much prefer the wheels of legislation to move at a snails pace at ALL levels of government so that there is little opportunity for them to run us over in unbridled haste.
    The previous ways of doing things may have been frustrating but at least the theater and mellow drama forced the issues into the public eye for its consideration, even if Martin’s attempt to put the childish name calling of the closed door sessions with the Premieres on camera was unsuccessful.

  20. As someone who has participated in many “executive level” meetings as a low-level grunt in government, the PM style of Harper, and a lesser extent Chretien, is the preferred manner of doing business, always has been.

    You don’t get together unless you have something to discuss. At the First Ministers level, it is a waste of time to meet unless you are on the cusp of a deal.

    In the case of the aptly named Mr. Dithers, it was never his intention to accomplish anything. For him and his minions, the act of being seen (supposedly doing something) was their goal. Their agenda was always a “hidden” agenda, far from the prying eyes of a someone with the intelligence to identify what was really going on.

    Here is a hint: accuse your opponents of what you in fact are trying to hide. (That is why Count Iggy will never make PM, his hidden “american” agenda scares the hell out of Canadians)

    In the case of PM Stephen Harper, it is not acceptable to be just seen doing something without it being actually accomplished. What a refreshingly novel concept in federal politics. This transparent approach is much more healthy for democracy. With no hidden agenda.

    You heard it here first. Stephen Harper will be Prime Minister of Canada for as long as he wants the job.

  21. ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh James : Tell us again how steve ‘s statement during the election campaign ” we for saw this economic problem a year ago ” or statements on income trust , Linda keens and tons of others hold any water . With your experience in any type of office have you seen competence and extreme game playing go hand in hand ?

  22. There’ve been some questions about comment policy. Here are a few guidelines.

    (a) Comments with more than one embedded link automatically get sent by our software to the review queue. This is, apparently, to discourage spam. Those comments are, as a rule, eventually approved, but don’t lard up your comments with links and that way you’ll save yourself a lot of delay.
    (b) Any comment flagged for abuse by any two different readers will go to the review queue. This is our favourite way of encouraging everyone to play nice.
    (c) I no longer hesitate to delete comments I find unacceptable for any reason. Persistent pests will find that every comment they’ve posted on Inkless for, say, the past month has been deleted retroactively. Serious pains in the ass will have their IP blocked. (So far we’ve done that to one guy.) Grounds for deletion include, but are in no way limited to, verbal abuse of another commenter; salty language; racism/sexism/Holocaust denial/frivolous accusations of Holocaust denial/whatever; excessive personal abuse of me or any colleague (I’m far more tolerant on this than on abuse of other commenters, but at some point, come on; if you’re coming here to pee on our rug, you’re not welcome); fiat; whim; grumpiness; random bad luck.
    (d) There is no appeal process. My house, my rules. Start your own blog if you have a problem. If you have your own blog and you still have a problem, that’s not my problem. Ninety-five per cent of commenters have never had a comment deleted because ninety-five per cent of commenters are not horrible, horrible people. If you don’t want trouble, don’t be a horrible, horrible person. It’s actually really simple.
    (e) We have all been really delighted with the quality of comments here, in general. But I have no interest in letting this board degenerate into the cesspool that other large news organizations host. Speaking only for myself — these are Inkless rules, not Maclean’s rules — I no longer hesitate to banish jerks.
    (f) On appeals: see (d).
    (g) For the love of God, stop posting novel-length diatribes in the comment board. Especially if you have your own blog. If you’re writing more than 300 words, your odds of getting deleted are increasing with dizzying speed.

  23. I am sooooooooo going to start posting under the moniker Horrible, Horrible Person for my Inkless comments.

  24. Paul

    Like the new house rules. Just one question: how do we flag comments for abuse now? There used to be a report abuse option on old layout but I don’t see that option now or am I missing something.

  25. Ahh. That option may have gone away with the new format. I will consult.

  26. Well, if you’re warming to Harper’s style that is one thing, but I think it’s simply irresponsible to refute an academic idea that still has full play in our system using your platform of this magazine using a headline. So pardon the lengthy post but it does take some explaining to show where you went wrong. I agree that you do log everything of interest and you make me laugh out loud but if you want to write the book that not only Sells Wells but is closest to truth you should take on the other 5%.

    The unity shows of late (Sarkozy’s visit, the recent meeting of premiers) have to do with a global appetite for economic collapse and war. Harper’s execution of executive federalism, the type that Smiley decried that tends to secretize legislative processes, is in full play and so your post here is misleading. Take for instance the situation of policies for mental healthcare. How does Harper deal? He looks the other way while McGuinty’s government denies pyschiatric service to residents of Ontario. He sets up Michael Kirby to lobby and deal on the policy issues. Speeches to the Empire Club. Recommendations to the Senate Health Committees. On and on the executive federalism plays out. My point to you was that if you misunderstand this, how can the magazine here comment knowledgeably on democratic political events that are the counterplay to it all?

    Now that is a criticism of you, but I hope you’ll let it stand. I do enjoy reading your blog, it keeps me informed, and I hope you can learn a bit through reading my comments.

    Have a nice day,
    Karen

  27. Executive federalism does take decisions away from direct mechanisms for accountability. It does inflate the importance of the day’s agenda item and discourage perspective.

    Translation?
    unaccountable decisions and discouraging longer-term thinking are something that you are warming to?

  28. No, NPoV, unaccountable decisions and short-term thinking are things I’m against, which is why I’m intrigued by a PM who wants to hold fewer of the kind of meeting that encourages those bad outcomes. Which is why I wrote that. See how the first two words in the passage you quote are “Executive federalism” — and the title of the post is about the “death (for now) of executive federalism”? That was your first clue.

  29. Nov 11, 2008 12:12 ~ Paul

    Hi Paul…just read your rules. Seems you left out excessive flatulence. LOL (just goofing around) L

  30. All this sounds good, but I can’t help but wonder how the Premier’s feel about having their most public platform for demands (and a good bit of whining) being taken away. I was a small child for much of Mulroney’s and Chrétien’s terms, but I do recall the meetings of the Martin and very late Chrétien eras, where after every FMM, the Premier’s would go back to their respective home provinces and either fume for a month or say ‘Look how great I am, I got you this and this and this’, or occasionally do both at the same time.

    Another thing: if these are metings where (Heaven forbid) real discussion id done, but no actual decisions are reached, perhaps it would be better, in the future, for these meetings to not be announced in advance? Surely the same results could be met with, say, everyone driving, flying, etc. into a Praliament-hill meeting room on a Tuesday morning with little to no press coverage. Not only woul dthis be condusive to real, frank discussion, it might save the public from two weeks of hearing about how one province or another was feeling left out and it. wasn’t. fair!

  31. Not a bad idea, Sophie, but scheduling becomes a problem. These leaders are all legitimately busy and therefore hard to herd. Once or twice, Chrétien achieved something similar by doing a concerted stint of shuttle diplomacy, meeting most of the premiers (and talking on the phone with the rest) individually, in Ottawa or provincial capitals, over several days. He didn’t announce he was about to do such a thing, and by the time we caught on (golf with Lorne Calvert? A quick stop in Fredericton? What the — ) he was nearly done. I recall he did this once in the late 1990s.

  32. I agree with the approach taken by Harper. Fewer meetings is better because the Premiers for their own partisan interest want to appear to be trashing the federal government and blaming them for every ill affecting the provinces i.e. lack of money. McGuinty in particular is really becoming the “small man of confederation” with his endless tirades about Ontario being shortchanged. Eventually people stop listening and chalk it up to partisan politics.
    The premiers clearly understand that Harper expects them to look after their own areas of jurisdiction and he will stick to his. So there is no need for more FMM than is absolutely necessary.

  33. hollinm: The premiers clearly understand that Harper expects them to look after their own areas of jurisdiction and he will stick to his.

    Wow, great news! When shall we expect the repeal of the Canada Health Act, the nickel-n-dime culture subsidies, grants to municipalities, and transfer of social services and homeless shelters to the provinces? I am soooo looking forward to the federal tax cut, leaving room for the provinces to take responsibility for raising and spending their own dime. Oh, and does this mean Quebec can be a province again, and stop with the demeaning oh-oh-look-at-me display at UNESCO and Francophonie, the closing of all QC’s ridiculous “embassies” around the world, and removal from the special-points-for-French-but-otherwise-less-desirable-immigrants at the immigration table?

    No? Didn’t think so. But hollinm, you said…

  34. Paul Martin was clueless and all Mr. Dithers when it came to working on Aboriginal problems. The bureaucrats and government officials all knew one of the biggest problems with First nations was that great gobs of money was being mis-spent and diverted from where it was intended. Robert Nault ,as Minister of Indian Affairs , brought forward a bill to have some accountability for monies given to First Nations.
    Accountability is something the Chiefs would have no part of (was that asking too much?) and complained viciferously and Paul Martin caved in to them and that was the end of the accountability bill and also Robert Nault was thrown to the wolves.
    Paul Martin didn’t have the answers and doesn’t have the anwers – he is a powder puff.

  35. As is his custom, Paul Wells provides an interesting observation concerning PM Harper’s approach to the premiers and to federal-provincial relations. It reminds me of his decision, recently changed since the election, of ignoring the national media. He simply had no use for a pesky and inquisitive national media so he just decided that his government would by pass the national media and focus on more CP friendly media who were less critical and grateful for the PM’s attention. Harper has now turned to the national media because he needs it to help him sell his rebranding of Canada and Canadian federalism. He is also grateful that the national media kept the story of the captured CBC journalist under wraps until the election was over and a deal was work out to ensure her release.
    The real issue is: why has he chosen to largely ignore the premiers and to downplay the role of regular federal-provincial conferences?
    Several reasons come to mind – some strategic, some based on his conception of federalism.
    Harper’s approach to the premiers has followed the same pattern as with the media – simply ignore them since they have nothing that you want or need and the pesky premiers can only cause you and your government problems – aka Danny Williams.
    Harper has realized that he now needs the premiers’ assistance in dealing with the emerging recession. He kept them in line by cutting back on the growth in equalization in such a way as not to inflame Charest and the Québécois. All the while, he humiliated the Ontario government and Ontarians by ensuring that the province would qualify for equalization for the first time since the program was created in 1957.
    Given Harper’s reluctant but necessary embrace of Keynesianism and counter-cyclical financing, he has to convince the premiers that there is a need for federal-provincial coordination of the massive public investment – based largely on borrowing not taxing – in the economy in order to ensure that unemployment does not skyrocket. If unemployment grows this will undermine the Harper government’s chances of winning a majority third time at bat.
    Harper’s embrace of classical watertight compartment federalism does not require federal-provincial conferences since both Ottawa and the Provinces are supposed to look after their own areas of responsibility. Executive federalism, of the activist kind, was largely a by-product of the new federalism that Ottawa put into place after WW II, an interdependent and intertwined federalism which required federal-provincial agreements on shared cost programs, programs largely in areas of provincial jurisdiction. Harper’s goal of downsizing the central government requires that it eventually be able to withdraw from all shared cost programs with full financial compensation to the provinces do as they please.
    Finally, Harper is a strong proponent of intra-state federalism which is based on regional/provincial interests and concerns being protected and promoted at the centre rather than by the premiers. The central institution, along side that of the Cabinet, for facilitating this intra-state process, is the Senate.
    But, Harper is convinced that for the Senate to play the dominant intra-state role there needs to be elected and equal, or nearly equal. Harper has never said how much power he is willing to grant an elected and equal Senate. My guess is that he would want the executive to retain its paramountcy over the the House of Commons and the elected Senate. After all, he may not like executive federalism but he surely loves the all powerful executive for which he is the CEO!
    Please let the discussion continue!

  36. What a civilized and informative venue for discussion, thanks for for your due diligence in trashing the lard and the ensuing bloating that effects so many other blogs.

    Paul, question off topic, if you had to guess, how often do you think paid party partisans or officials infiltrate or even casually post on these and other blogging forums?

  37. Interesting observation.

    Perhaps the missing dynamic of a paternal attitude…feds know best…made the difference. IOW, everyone sitting around the table, including the PM, was of equal stature. And thus, Harper came to actually “listen” to his counterparts. I understand Harper is a very good listener, providing something intelligent is being said.

    The other interesting item was Danny Williams. To summarize, he throws a huge public tantrum, launches his ABC campaign, Harper wins more seats, including in Atlantic Canada, while NFLD finds itself on the outside of the government, but more to the point, of the cabinet.

    PW, you once noted that Harper, at the right moment, would hurt Williams really bad.

    If you ask me, I’d say Williams was still sporting some Humble Pie on his chin…or was that egg?

  38. RBB: Paid partisans? Zero, I’d say. Earnest volunteer party supporters given some light direction and a few suggested lines? Certainly more than zero. I don’t mind such behaviour (much; it can be tedious, which isn’t the worst sin), as long as people who come here to support their team remember to be nice to everyone else.

  39. Superb photo selection above the post. Dalton’s elevator-doesn’t-go-all-the-way-to-the-top stare truly says a thousand words about federal-provincial grandstanding and why I don’t want to hear about it. The only imaginable improvement would be an inset of a lonely Danny Williams buttering a bread roll by himself.

  40. Canadian politics is so continental.

    I mean that in a good way. As if there was any other way!

  41. The novel-length diatribe rule really needs to be implemented soon!

  42. I’m with skydiver on the length rule. I have other choices I can make with the time I have available for reading blogs and would rather read a quick comment that references where I can read more. Here’s a rule of thumb: If your comment is longer than the original post it’s a new article masquerading as a comment. And think about it, who made you a blog central editor?

    Currently I employ my own patented scroll-past filter for comments like this, but would welcome the improved technology available to Macleans.ca to snag and reject encyclopedia entries, theses, and the book you are thinking of submitting to some publisher some day.

  43. Martin was constantly taken for a ride at these things – the Health Accord being of course the main example. I had predicted a similar outcome for Harper, so it’s been interesting to see that so far, there have been no concrete concensus provincial demands. I guess Harper has been able to learn from the mistakes of others far better than he has been able to learn from his own (if I were a cynic, I’d suggest its because he’s infinitely more willing to accept the idea that others actually make mistakes, but I’m not, so I wont). This sums it up pretty well: “If Chrétien would only meet if results were guaranteed, and Martin only if drama was guaranteed, Harper meets only if drama and results are banished.” Thanks for providing a bit more perspective on this PW.

  44. “Grounds for deletion include, but are in no way limited to; fiat; whim; grumpiness; random bad luck.”
    Ok, so I’m guilty of all four, and likely to be deleted. I don’t understand the fiat thing though. I mean, it’s not a great car but still… Is this a Gore/Suzuki thing?

  45. Quote:”All the while, he humiliated the Ontario government and Ontarians by ensuring that the province would qualify for equalization for the first time since the program was created in 1957″

    Harper humiliated Ontario?

    The McGuinty government was practically begging for equalization payments!

    McGuinty and Duncan warned Harper not to withhold equalization payments as the feds did in the 80’s.

  46. The best consideration of “executive federalism” I have read since my Federal-Provincial Relations class at Carleton U in 1989 before Meech Lake blew up. As usual PW, you do a great job of outlining how the practice of executive federalism has almost always been either a) futile, or b) unnecessary. The simple fact is that there is no consitutitional basis for executive federalism at the administrative level. Prime Ministers do the job of Prime Ministers and Premiers do thier own jobs. It is not the job of Premiers to run the affairs of the nation (despite Quebec’s semi-seat at UNESCO and Francophonie). The only, sort of, place for executive federalism is in dealing with the consitutution. After the Mulroney fiascos, the old proverb about fools rushing in where angles fear to tread comees to mind.

    The only thing I see missing from the piece is a mention of so called “Council of the Federation” created in the aftermath of the last Quebec referendum. Is it my imagination that the Council is as dead as the Kelowna Accord?

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