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Three cheers for national disunity

By Link Byfield
web posted August 20, 2007

Call me an optimist, but I think Canada is slowly making progress.

A recent meeting of provincial premiers reached no significant agreement on anything. This is good news.

For example, there was no consensus about establishing a national system of carbon-credit trading. Petroleum-consuming provinces see a national trading system as a way to recapture energy windfalls from Alberta.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach rallied support against it, and it went nowhere. All he needs to do now is convene a public inquiry into whether CO2 is even a problem. Plenty of qualified experts around the world say it isn't.

Instead the premiers agreed to set up a national CO2 "registry", so everyone knows how much everyone else is emitting. That should keep them busy and out of the way. Maybe Ottawa will lend them the people who designed the gun registry.

Neither was there any agreement on stricter emission controls on new cars. Ontario balked at imposing on its main industry the "California tailpipe" standard. Premier Dalton McGuinty argued that it would add $1,000 to $3,000 to the cost of an automobile. His provincial economy is already stalling as investment and people relocate westward.

As for reformulating Equalization – that great federal folly whereby Ontario and Alberta are expected to make all others prosperous – the premiers are so divided they didn't even discuss it.

Unfortunately, the best idea at the conference wasn't even on the agenda. Quebec wants the Constitution be reopened to explicitly forbid Ottawa from spending in provincial fields of jurisdiction.

It would be a good thing for the four "have" and "near-have" provinces – Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and Saskatchewan – to get behind this idea, and make it the focus of next year's premiers' meeting in Quebec City.

This is actually a positive, "let's-all-take-responsibility-for-ourselves" proposal.

Everything at this and previous conferences amounted to "let's all get something for nothing." Let's make Alberta pay more. Let's all gang up on Ontario.

I think it's noteworthy that these "something for nothing" discussions over Equalization and carbon-credit trading now fizzle out.

Slowly but surely we are moving back to the original truth of Canadian federalism – that the people responsible for the economy and social services of, say, Newfoundland or Manitoba are Newfoundlanders and Manitobans, not Ontarians and Albertans.

There is only one reliable way to share money and opportunities between provinces – through free market investment.

In the two low-tax decades after the Second World War, before Ottawa created the federal welfare mentality, Quebec was a "have" province, and the Atlantic provinces had almost caught up to the rest of the country.

Today, after four decades of federal "help," Maritimers on average produce only half the $66,000 per-capita generated by Albertans. Nova Scotians are on a productivity par with Bolivians, New Brunswickers with Guyanans.

It isn't just that Albertans have oil. So do Mexicans, Venezuelans, Nigerians and people in Saskatchewan. It's that successful provinces rely on private investment, lower taxation and a strong work ethic. Unsuccessful provinces rely on Ottawa.

The solution is not for Ottawa to penalize the success of Alberta and Ontario, and hold hostage the future success of B.C. and Saskatchewan. The solution is to do as Quebec apparently is proposing – get Ottawa out the way.

The decision of the premiers to back off on carbon trading is a hopeful sign of better things to come. ESR

Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre. The Centre promotes the principles of personal freedom and responsible government.


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