Ask Not What Ottawa Can Do for You

Worth A Look, Equalization, Frontier Centre

We received an interesting response to last week’s column, “The equitable solution for Equalization is to get rid of it.”

It’s interesting because the writer illustrates how good intentions wreck a constitution, and eventually a country.

We argued last week that since the premiers are now all hopelessly divided over how to share the spoils of federal Equalization, this would be an ideal time for Prime Minister Harper to shut the program down.

Why not surrender $12 billion worth of federal tax room to the provinces, and tell the premiers to raise the money themselves and pay their own bills?

One reader commented:

“I’m from Ontario so I’m stuck (like you Albertans—uh, luv your Oilers) with paying into a ‘pot’ that hopefully will help in distributing some of the wealth that exists in this land, so all Canadians benefit from being Canadians. I’m not saying we shouldn’t remain diligent to abuse or politically motivated demands — especially from Quebec, which in actual fact would be a ‘have’ province if it was better governed. But if there’s wealth in this country — and there is — let’s not be so inward-looking that we cannot help raise the standard of life for the country as a whole, and stop thinking provincially — it’s a country destroyer.”

In these few well-meaning words, the writer has perfectly expressed the wishful thinking that confounds this country. He argues:

1. All Canadians have a federal claim on “the wealth that exists in this land.”

2. Provinces which are badly governed should be equalized anyway.

3. Ottawa can raise living standards in weaker regions.

4. If Ottawa doesn’t, our country could break apart.

I think he’s wrong on every point — so wrong it’s hard to know where to begin.

Most of the “wealth that exists in this land” does not belong to any government. It belongs privately to citizens, corporations, pension funds, etc.

Under the Constitution, governments can legitimately claim a portion of this wealth to fulfill certain defined tasks. Constitutions limit the powers and direct the activities of governments.

The reason there is growing regional grievance in Canada — in Quebec, in the Atlantic, in the West, and now even in Ontario — is that we keep trying to ignore our Constitution.

Constitutionally, we want it both ways. We want local control of important things like health, education, welfare and regional development, and we want Ottawa (i.e. someone else) to pay.

The Constitution says that all these are “local and private” matters which are the “exclusive” responsibility of provinces.

Well, why then is Ottawa paying for them?

If they are provincial, why is there a Canada Health Act setting all kinds of national terms and conditions? Why is there a huge federal Health and Social transfer to the provinces, and why is there federal Equalization, federal Employment Insurance, federal public pensions and federal “regional job creation” funds (none of which, as it happens do much good)?

Canadians have been taught to think in terms of national entitlements — about “getting.” But entitlements do not build countries. They create insatiable expectations and demands, and then they disappoint.

What builds countries is a sense of responsibility. Responsibility is about “doing.” It’s about finding your own solutions and pulling your own weight.

If responsibility is to win out over entitlement, we will have to go back to vesting social and economic responsibility in the provinces, not Ottawa.

– Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.

“Just Between Us” is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.