When the Parti Quebecois announced that one of their strategies as a new government — if they ever form one — would be to provoke a fight with the federal government over who runs the Employment Insurance system, I don’t mind telling you, it worried me. Not because of anything related to the PQ, but more because of Stephen Harper himself. During his days as an Albertan anti-nationalist, you see, Harper also argued that federal programs like EI (and CPP, and the police, and healthcare, and income tax, etc., etc.) should be dismantled and handed off to the provinces to run as they chose:
The time has come for Albertans to take greater charge of our own future. This means remusing control of the powers that we possess… but that we have allowed the federal government to exercise… It is imperative to take the initiative, to build firewalls around Alberta, to limit the extent to which an aggressive and hostile federal government can encroach upon legitimate provincial jurisdiction.
This letter could have been lifted virtually verbatim from the pages of the PQ manifesto, just swapping out the names of the two provinces. It demonstrates why Harper is exactly the wrong Prime Minister to defend Canada against the demands of the separatist PQ — because at least on this issue, he actually agrees with them. I have warned for a long time now that electing a man who is basically an anti-nationalist would have dire consequences if there was ever another sovereignty battle with Quebec, and, if the PQ win the next election, those dire consequences will arrive.
What I’m suggesting here isn’t merely that Harper will “throw” the match, so to speak, but that he will see the PQ’s demands as an opportunity to press forward on some of the more controversial elements of his own agenda, and then “blame the separatists” to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions. This spring’s comparatively minor EI reforms provoked howls of protest, especially in Atlantic Canada. Imagine the political fallout if the federal EI system gets dismantled altogether. Politically unpopular? Absolutely! And yet the Prime Minister’s personal political beliefs are that the federal EI system should be dismantled. It’s just a question of how to convince the unwashed masses that it’s a good idea. Letting the separatists take the blame for it would be a good distraction, if he can find a way to swing it.
I’m not the only one thinking this. This week Harper’s former intellectual sage, right-wing Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, tried to stir the pot in the Globe & Mail with a column supporting the PQ proposal to eliminate federal control over EI, too. Flanagan was the co-signer of Harper’s “firewall” letter, which I quoted from above. Flanagan’s message now: if Quebec wants to run their own EI system, let them try. And if other provinces want to do the same, he implies, let them try, too.
I’m not an expert on the economics involved, but I assume that, like other taxes, in terms of EI premiums provinces with low unemployment put proportionately more into the EI pot than provinces with high unemployment. So from a fiscal perspective it probably makes sense for Alberta to run its own EI system. I’m not sure the same holds true for Quebec, or especially for the Maritimes.
Of course, Harper may not have been being any more honest or principled about his beliefs during his “firewall” phase than he has been as Prime Minister. The fallout from the 2012 budget might have been enough to convince him not to continue playing with fire on issues like EI and OAS. Maybe.Tweet