Funny thing how the new ideas in politics come out of the West, these days.
There was a time when the philosophers were in the East, working Quiet Revolutions, or bilingualism and multiculturalism in the name of centralized government.
Then, it was as though the lights went off. There’s been nary a new idea of consequence from Winnipeg east for 25 years. Instead, the new emperors hunkered down to defend their gains with court and Charter, but instead succeeded in shedding their clothes: Referendums barely won, old social conventions overturned, divide-and-conquer among the regions, regardless of party. People started to notice, especially in the divided and conquered, but increasingly powerful West – which fairly seethed with debate.
Not all of it was terribly profitable, to be sure. Where now, the Confederation of Regions Party, Doug Christie’s Western Canada Concept, the Christian Heritage Party, to name just a few?
On the other hand, one could trace a series of dots from Stephen Harper’s desk in 24 Sussex Drive today right back to the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver, in May 1987. That was the Western Assembly, where in one of the most remarkable speeches made in Canada since the war, Preston Manning drove a stake into the heart of the old federal Progressive Conservative party, and the Reform party was born. And, pitching a paper called A Taxpayer’s Reform Agenda was then-graduate student Harper, describing the principled conservative position he’s now advancing as prime minister.
Granted, one would have needed a good eye for horses to pick that one out of the pack back then. Still, all this turmoil changed the country, no question: Ottawa today is informed by western values.
“Economic force eventually has a political effect,” says Alberta senator-elect Link Byfield. And, as the driving force behind what may be the next Big Idea from the West – the Calgary Congress in three weeks – he means it to have more yet.
The Congress will be pounding Byfield’s theme that Canada must get back to its constitution to survive. As written, the British North America Act never envisaged a federal government that would spend public money so liberally on things for which it had no mandate. Nor did it intend the Senate as an ante-room to retirement for party functionaries. As conceived, it was to protect regional interests from a vote-heavy central Canada.
Meanwhile, he says, “Judges, who define the meaning of the Constitution have become a law unto themselves.”
No mean writer, Byfield offers a powerful metaphor:
“We are like passengers in a plane losing altitude. We don’t feel it. Alienation builds, incomes flatten out, its passengers oblivious to democracy . . . cynicism spreads . . . yet because we feel no sudden shock, we go about life as usual . . . We haven’t noticed we can now count the cars on the cloverleaf, and the bales in the field.”
This time, however, there will be no talk of a new party when Manning – along with Ted Morton, Ralph Klein and other luminaries of the conservative movement – take the podium at the Westin.
The idea is to push provincial governments to demand a return to constitutional basics, when there’s never been a government in Ottawa more disposed to give it them.
“The West is a dynamic force,” says Byfield. “If the Congress enunciates the basic principles of reform by constitutional convention, the message will go home. If we have good leadership from the premiers – the kind we had in the early ’80s from the likes of Peter Lougheed, Allan Blakeney and Sterling Lyon – it could happen.”
But, why should it?
“What’s different today,” says Byfield, “is that everybody can see what works, and what doesn’t, that you can’t build a country on the basis of getting more out of it than you put into it. We’ve known for years, for example, that the way EI is run, the system of federal transfers creates perverse incentives that hold back whole regions. Our purpose is to make sure this awareness gets out of the think-tanks and into the political organizations.”
Read, provincial governments. This country is not a unitary state, but a Confederation of theoretically powerful provinces. Trouble is, they’ve let Ottawa use its tax and granting powers to force its agenda on them.
It’s no way to run a country, especially when unlike our neighbours to the south, there’s a legal right to secede.
Maybe that’s why Byfield has secessionist U of A professor Leon Craig booked to talk about his belief Albertans should either fix the system or quit. Better the former, and one more high calling for the West, to make it happen.