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Closing national doors: the Conservatives’ “open federalism”

The Conservatives’ vision for Canada came into sharper focus today in Montreal, courtesy of Lawrence Cannon, Federal Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

Cannon described the three main pillars of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s vision of “open federalism”. They were: respecting provincial jurisdiction, limiting the use of federal spending power and enhancing cooperation between the three orders of government (federal, provincial/territorial and municipal).

“Nobody can argue against the idea that the three orders of government should cooperate and tackle challenges together as equals,” said CUPE National President Paul Moist. “We applaud the Minister for stating this so clearly to FCM delegates.”

However, Moist raised grave concerns with the idea of the federal government limiting the use of its spending powers.

“We need the federal government to use its spending powers to set and enforce national standards in key social policy areas,” Moist said. “The federal government must make sure provinces and territories spend federal money on the programs it’s intended for, whether it’s municipal infrastructure, health care or any other priority.”

“Now is not the time for the federal government to close the door on its historic role creating and safe-guarding national programs and services that make concrete and positive differences in peoples’ daily lives,” Moist said.

And Moist warned that “respecting provincial jurisdictions” might be code for the federal government to pull out of social policy areas.

Cannon said his government will respect the constitutional link between cities and provinces, stating clearly that they will not deal directly with municipalities.

This could mean that the “New Deal for Cities and Communities” era is over, Moist said.

Indeed, Cannon said that the discussions about the processes and criteria for municipal funding programs are taking place now between his government and the provinces and territories.

“The time for municipalities to make their voices heard is now,” Moist said.

Going to the polls: public services build quality of life

Pollster Allan Gregg, chair of The Strategic Counsel, presented an overview of Canadians top concerns over the past 15 years and drew some conclusions for FCM delegates.

Saying polls provide a “roadmap, not a compass”, Gregg outlined the ways that Canadians’ key concerns have shifted over the past decade and a half, from economic concerns in the early 1990s to concerns over a strained and shredded social safety net today.

Indeed, Gregg has found that Canadians value public services just as much as a strong economy when it comes to measuring a good quality of life.

“This is very good news for CUPE members,” said Paul Moist. “This means that people understand that the work we do, day in and day out, makes the difference in peoples’ lives and in their communities.”

Parks and green space, good schools and local government services are the top indicators for healthy and strong communities. Importantly, Gregg has not been able to find any real “hue and cry” for tax cuts, despite right-wing governments fondness for such policies that put public services at risk.

But Gregg has also found a high acceptance of “partnerships” between the public and private sector and challenged unions to increase their “relevance” today.

Paul Faoro, president of CUPE 15, a composite local of Vancouver workers in the municipal, education, health care and other sectors, said Gregg should come out to B.C. to see the shortage of skilled workers there.

“The idea that unions aren’t directly relevant today is simply not true,” Faoro said. “Unions can address the issue of labour shortages by helping to fill the gaps of skilled workers.”

And Moist said that this acceptance of “partnership” - noting that Gregg didn’t define “partnership” in his talk today - might have something to do with another of Gregg’s conclusions. The pollster himself noted that after years of governments cutting back and downloading, people are understandably wary of their capacity to deliver or make a difference at all.

“Of course, the evidence shows that keeping services public is more cost-efficient and maintains better quality, so naturally CUPE will continue to press these points in the days ahead,” Moist said.

As for unions’ “relevance”, Moist was clear.

“Unions like CUPE will be increasingly relevant as people grapple with the problems of further downloading and privatization,” he said. “And we haven’t seen the last of that with Stephen Harper’s so-called “open federalism”“.

And the winner is…Tony Whalen!

A new CUPE tradition gathered steam at this year’s FCM.

For the past two years, CUPE has held a contest draw for the prize of two Air Canada tickets to anywhere the airline flies in North America.

This year’s winner is Tony Whalen, a city councillor from Fredericton, N.B.. Congratulations, Tony!

CUPE had the honour today of having FCM president Gloria Kovach draw the winning ticket.

As she did so, Kovach graciously said, “It is CUPE members who make our communities great.”

Smiles all ‘round.

Tune in tomorrow for more from the FCM conference in Montreal.