Canada Needs to Decentralize

Commentary, Public Sector, Robert Sopuck

I wince when I hear the phrase “strong central government” applied to the Canadian federation. Long a mantra of Ottawa mandarins and politicians, the notion is finally getting the critical examination that it deserves.

Many and varied are the reasons why Canadians have been led down the garden path of ever stronger central control. Mainly, Ottawa has become very adept at bribing us with our own money. Look at the Maritimes. Seduced by constantly expanding federal largesse in the form of Employment Insurance, regional development agencies, and equalization, people in those provinces continually vote for bigger, more centralized government in Ottawa. The fact that these subsidies are on the backs of more prosperous economies is of little consequence, as long as the money keeps flowing.

Once central control by Ottawa becomes a given, many chains of events are set in motion. The feds use their expanding tax powers to accumulate more revenue. Ottawa delivers only 1/3 of all the services to Canadians, yet it rakes in 2/3 of the taxes. This is the “fiscal imbalance” decried by Québec Premier Jean Charest. With this excess revenue, the federal bureaucracy bulks up its power and starts to intrude on areas of provincial jurisdiction. It also enables politicians to play one region or province against the others, as cash-strapped provinces strive to curry Ottawa’s favour and more program dollars.

The intrusion into provincial jurisdictions, especially in western Canada, has reached epidemic proportions. In the area of environmental protection, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans has used its sweeping powers under the Federal Fisheries Act to move onto the Prairies and insinuate itself into all facets of rural economic development.. It has become the bane of every local government in Manitoba. Yet we have precious little environmental improvement to show for the $60 million dollars of new money spent by DFO on the Prairies in the last three years. Maybe Sheila Fraser, the Auditor General, needs to see if Canadians got value for money out of this program. Other intrusions of this sort include the Species at Risk Act, and the proposed Animal Cruelty Act.

There are two big problems with centralized control and “national standards” for programs. Firstly, they preclude experimentation and competition by the provinces. Provinces with real power would be free to innovate with program delivery and taxation systems. “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” was Mao Tse-Tung’s cry during China’s Cultural Revolution. Let them bloom here.

Second, remote central governments tend to create remote federal bureaucracies. Provincial departments, with their direct connection to elected cabinet ministers, are at least somewhat accessible and accountable, especially in Manitoba where governments win or lose by very small margins. Contrast this with remote federal departments, where the average citizen is made to feel like an intruder. Federal bureaucrats know that there is little chance of retribution from a remote Ottawa minister, so they often act accordingly. This is the true “democratic deficit” in Canada.

It’s good news that, in this minority government, decentralizing Canada is finally on the agenda. It’s about time.