An election is looming at most five or six months from now. Possibly sooner. We are already being inundated with politicians promising us many goodies. But don’t get your hopes up. Contrary to appearances, this election, like so many others, and like Ottawa politics since the 1960s, is not about you. It’s not about Atlantic Canada, or the West or Ontario. It will be dominated by only one issue. That issue, often unspoken, but no less real for that, is Quebec.
In saying this, I do not criticize Quebeckers, who are brilliant political strategists. What could better serve their interests than to have two governments (Ottawa and Quebec City), constantly battling over their loyalty and good will? And far from having “lost” the last referendum, Quebeckers got the most powerful outcome possible: a result close enough to frighten Ottawa to death, but just shy of the definitive result that would have ended the intergovernmental auction and delivered them into the hands of a single government in Quebec City. Such deftness merits admiration.
The people who deserve our criticism are rather our leaders in Ottawa, of every political stripe, who have sacrificed many of the larger interests of the country in a vain attempt to buy the respect and affection of Quebeckers. Emotions can never be bought. At best they can be rented for short periods.
No one’s interests have been more sacrificed than Atlantic Canada’s. Prior to the late 1960s, we were closing the prosperity gap nicely with the rest of Canada. Our unemployment was consistently very close to the national average. Growth was strong. And transfers from Ottawa, the numerical manifestation of our dependence, were at a relatively low level. But around the end of the 1960s, Ottawa’s spending in the region was massively ramped up, chiefly through EI and regional development spending. This caused massive disruption in the region’s economy from which we struggle to recover.
Why? It had nothing to do with “helping” Atlantic Canada, and everything to do with responding to the growth of the Quebec separatist movement by creating “national” programs intended to foster dependence. Virtually all that has happened in regional policy since the late 60s has not been aimed at Atlantic Canada – we have merely been collateral damage.
Ottawa is in a bidding war with Quebec City for the loyalty of Quebeckers. Both sides regard it as axiomatic that, while emotion and sentiment will play their role, the most powerful ties between citizen and government are ties of self-interest. That, in turn, they define as dependence. A citizen dependent on a flow of benefits from one government will likely not vote to quit that government’s jurisdiction. Thus the feds ramped up EI, regional development, equalization, marketing boards and a host of other programmes.
Similarly, Quebec wanted to show it could step into any void created by Ottawa’s absence. Accordingly, for instance, Quebec now spends more on business subsidies than all the other provinces put together. More generally, the taxes raised by Quebec’s provincial and local government are much larger than in the other provinces. Last year, for example, such provincial and local taxes took 26.6 percent of the province’s GDP; in Nova Scotia it was 22.9 percent and in Alberta a mere 18.1 percent. The extra money finances Quebec’s bid for the loyalty of Quebeckers, and the bidding goes on under both federalist and sovereigntist governments.
Ottawa finds it difficult to own up to the fact that much of its policy is driven by a fear of Quebec and an unwillingness to confront the nationalist movement directly. Consequently, many policies allegedly pursue other goals. But Ottawa’s true intentions are always revealed by their unwillingness to subject their policies to tough tests of effectiveness. Thus, when Ontario started to make a fuss about the amount of money being extracted from their economy each year by Ottawa for redistribution to other jurisdictions, a federal minister was sent to make a speech, not defending Ottawa’s redistributive efforts, but remonstrating with Ontario for questioning them. The Auditor General asks repeatedly in vain for real tests of the effectiveness of regional development agencies like ACOA.
Such examples are legion. We cannot discuss openly and critically equalization, regional development, employment insurance or any one of a host of other programmes to see if they actually do good, or if they in fact corrupt our politics, mire us in dependence, ruin our competitiveness and obstruct efforts to raise our productivity and hence our standard of living.
When we cannot ask whether programmes are actually achieving their stated goals because such questions might threaten the future of the country, you begin to understand what Samuel Johnson meant when he said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and what Socrates meant when he said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@AIMS.ca