Canadian premiers had invited the prime minister to their summit on the economy this week in Halifax, an invitation Stephen Harper declined. Premier Darrell Dexter kept repeating they needed the PM here because the premiers “need to know what Canada’s action plan is going to be going forward.” When I hear that line, my reaction is immediate: Have they not been paying attention?
Love it or hate it, Canada’s economic action plan (not to be confused with “Canada’s Economic Action Plan,” the one of pork-barrel, election-style spending) is well-settled and well underway. It involves lower taxes, smaller government, freer trade and more reliance on personal responsibility. It is about playing to our economic strengths and, to the extent judged prudent and possible, getting government out of the way.
This federal government has, among many other efforts, entered free trade talks with India, pursued negotiations to conclude a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Europe, and launched a full court press to get Canada into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It has made changes to Old Age Security and Employment Insurance to make the programs more sustainable and to send a clear message to individual Canadians that, where they can, they should contribute more to their own long-term security.
It has reduced taxes and is beginning to slow the rate of growth in government, and may actually shrink it from the all-time high achieved under its watch. Changes are also underway to make it easier, within the bounds of prudent environmental review and safety precautions, to move expeditiously with resource-based exploration and development.
These changes have not been undertaken in secret. The prime minister has campaigned on this agenda (or something close to it) in four general elections, plus his own original MP byelection. Indeed, before entering elected service, he had spent much of his adult life making the philosophical and evidentiary case for just such an agenda.
For that matter, I suspect that even before I cited them, anyone reading this piece and likely most of the people they know could have listed these examples of Canada’s economic action plan in action. Certainly, Tom Mulcair, the leader of the Opposition, knows them well and has been aggressively attacking each and every one of them. It strikes me that only the premiers seem not to know what Canada’s economic action plan is.
I reach that conclusion not only from their most recent words, but from their ongoing deeds. Between Christy Clark’s “fair share” and David Alward’s “buy New Brunswick” strategies, it becomes clear that free trade is not a provincial option. The size of government in just about every province is growing, not shrinking. On the tax front, Dexter has taken a page from Harper’s handbook, offering to cut the HST/GST by a point or two if re-elected to office next time. But other provincial taxes are and will remain high, and Nova Scotia has yet to live up to a long-standing promise to at least index taxes to inflation.
As for taking responsibility, there isn’t a provincial problem that Alison Redford or Pauline Marois is not happy to lay at Ottawa’s door. And with their recent report on guaranteed increases to federal health spending, otherwise known as “cuts” in the language of the premiers, all of their colleagues continue to demonstrate far too great a willingness to stay on that particular bandwagon.
Rather than grandstanding with public invitations, the premiers should just take the advice of a previous prime minister. If they want to know what Prime Minister Harper plans to do on the economy, they should actually watch him. Better still, if they want a nationally co-ordinated economic strategy, they might consider emulating him.
Charles Cirtwill is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social policy think tank based in Atlantic Canada.