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Whither the West: Firewalls or Bridges?

Ted Morton Globe and Mail June 30, 2004 Monday's election results were a bitter pill for most Western Canadians. Not only did Harper and his new Conservative Party fail to make the necessary break through in vote-rich Ontario, but the so-called "party of national unity" had once again used the regional divide-and-conquer strategy to bring their stray Ontario sheep back into the Liberal fold. For Westerners, all the old policy irritants remain (Wheat Board, gun registry) or get worse (Kyoto). All the structural reforms sought by Western reformers for the past 20 years-Senate reform, a public vetting of Supreme Court appointments, democratic reform of House of Commons-will remain frozen in the netherworld of think tanks and policy forums. To rub salt in the wounds, the Prime Minister will now fill the three Alberta Senate vacancies with some combination of defeated Liberal candidates, jazz musicians and ex-hockey stars. With two current Supreme Court vacancies and a third opening up next year (when Justice Major reaches mandatory retirement age), the Liberals, who have averaged only 40 percent of the vote in the past four elections, will have appointed one hundred percent of the judges. And it gets worse. Equalization payments and transfers to "have not" provinces will now be increased. The Charest Liberals are desperate for outside cash, and have been demanding that the "fiscal imbalance" be immediately addressed with an increase of $6-$8 billion dollars a year, half of which goes directly to Quebec. Now that the election is safely behind him, Mr. Martin will kick open the spigot to start the money flowing to Quebec and the loyal Liberal voters in Atlantic Canada. While equalization is nominally a transfer from the federal government, it is paid for almost exclusively by taxpayers in Ontario and Alberta. Now if equalization achieved its primary goals-national unity and economic prosperity-Alberta's complaints could be easily dismissed as sour grapes. But equalization achieves neither of these. Separatist sentiment in Quebec remains in the mid-forty percent range-double what it was two decades ago. And thanks to the Liberals' new electoral finance law, the Bloc will now get millions of taxpayer dollars to stir the separatist pot. Some unity strategy! As for national prosperity, Canada continues to fall behind. In the decade of the 1990s alone, seven OECD nationsIreland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Holland and Switzerland-passed us in per capita income. Equalization is a major contributor to our declining competitiveness. Equalization punishes success and rewards failure. When Separatists drove half the English-speaking business class out of Montreal in the Seventies and Eighties, Quebec was rewarded with massive equalization increases. When ten years of NDP government in British Columbia destroyed what had been the most prosperous provincial economy in Canada, they were rewarded with "have not" status and equalization payments. The Liberals-and much of the national media-love to caricature Albertans as insular and backward. But many of us would argue that the opposite is the case; that it is Eastern elites that are preoccupied with re-fighting the French and Indian wars of the 19th century, rather than plotting Canada's path to prosperity in the global economy of the 21st century. Stripped of its flowery rhetoric of sharing, what equalization really does is pay large sections of the country for NOT adapting to the new economic realities. This refusal to contemplate change was most evident in the pathetic level of the health care debate during the election. The solution offered by three of the four national parties was not to change anything but pour in billions of new dollars into the existing system. This of course is the very policy that has driven waiting lists to all time highs while consuming ever larger percentages of provincial budgets. We all know that the rate of increase is completely unsustainable, yet not a single political party had the nerve to say this during the election. What is Canada's future with this mindset? What is Alberta's future within this Canada? To pay the bills but have no say? To be vilified as "un-Canadian" every time we say something sensible about reforming an unsustainable health care system or object to public policy being made by unelected judges? To watch our farmers go to jail for marketing their own grain-something Ontario and Quebec farmers can do with impunity? In 1985, Bert Brown, my fellow Senator-Elect, plowed into his barley field Alberta's message to Ottawa: "Triple E Senate or else." That was 20 years ago. The West's complete failure to make any progress on Triple E Senate reform since then is directly linked to our lack of progress on the "or else" side of the equation.

Why would the beneficiaries of the status quo-Ontario and Quebec-agree to meaningful Senate reform if there are no costs for ignoring the issue. The Liberal Party knows that it can easily form governments without any support from Alberta or the West. They've done so for decades, and did again last Monday. So, if we cannot achieve more Western influence within Ottawa-the purpose of Senate reform-we should pursue reasonable policies to reduce Ottawa's influence in the West: withdraw from the Canada pension plan and create our own provincial pension plans; collect our own income taxes; cancel our contracts with the RCMP and create our own provincial police forces; take control of our health delivery systems; and use the notwithstanding clause when nine, non-elected judges in Ottawa try to impose their notion of good public policy on our democratically elected governments. Media pundits like to characterize this as the radical "firewall agenda." Of course, it is anything but radical. Each of these policies is already in place in either Quebec, Ontario or both. "Triple E Senate or else." For many Westerners, it's time to start working on the "or else." Ironically, the model for Plan B-and its most likely ally-is Quebec.