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Canada’s capital has suffered from a vacuum of ideas ever since Prime Minister Harper counted off his five campaign priorities from the fingers of his right hand. In desperation, his office sent out an e-mail to Conservative political staffers to solicit new ideas for the upcoming fall session.   

Our prediction? That the Conservatives will decide to cut taxes, reduce public spending, cut regulations, privatize public services and download responsibilities to the provinces. Our national government is increasingly being reduced to an agency for clearing cheques, devising ever-new tax loopholes and paving the land for private business. There seems a real unwillingness from our government to actually govern.

Luckily, other parties and levels of government are doing their best to pick up the slack. With the vacuum at the centre, it is at the provincial and local level where political leadership is being demonstrated.  Unfortunately, Harper is unwilling to develop a co-operative and collaborative federalism.  He needs to learn to start working with other parties and levels of government in this era of minority governments.

Whether Harper is interested in the outcomes or not, Canada’s Premiers will gather this week in Moncton for meetings of the Council of the Federation.  High on their agenda will be the issue of climate change and energy efficiency.  

On climate change, Canadians need all levels of governments to demonstrate public leadership by putting a price on pollution, investing in infrastructure and using regulations and financial support to forge a more sustainable future. Impacts also need to be cushioned for the most vulnerable: low-income Canadians and workers in affected jobs.

The Premiers will also tackle the issue of internal trade.  They need to ensure that trade and investment agreements don’t undermine the democratic powers of governments and other public institutions in favour of corporations.  The Trade Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement, much like NAFTA’s infamous Chapter 11, gives corporations and investors a platform to sue governments for regulating in the public interest.  There are few remaining unjustified barriers to trade and labour mobility in Canada: the Agreement on Internal Trade can be used effectively to deal with them.

Regulatory barriers to trade and labour mobility between provinces aren’t the problem.  What is holding back progress is our patchwork of social, educational, health and environmental programs.  These are a far greater barrier to our opportunity and wellbeing than regulations designed to protect our health, safety and environment.  Instead of reducing standards to the lowest common denominator, we need to strive higher. While there is a role for provincial experimentation, at some point we need to move forward to build our nation.  

For example, a number of provinces have reasonably good drug plans for seniors while others may have almost nothing.  What we need is a national pharmacare plan to control drug costs, so all Canadians, rich or poor, young or old, no matter where they live or work, have access to the medicine they need.

Quebec has a decent child care program, but other provinces have nothing close. Canadian families would benefit much more from a national early learning and child care program than from child care cheques for a few dollars a day.   

We need national solutions to growing problems in many other areas. Shameful conditions in many Aboriginal communities condemn far too many to a life of poverty and missed opportunities.  We have an inadequate patchwork of literacy, training and labour market programs.  The price of higher education has escalated in every province.  We still have no national transit plan, no independent national energy strategy and a growing public infrastructure deficit.

This is a tall order: far too much to expect thirteen Premiers to solve in just two short days of meetings.  But Harper’s answer to these problems is inaction, privatization or devolution. This vacuum of national leadership means pressure on provincial Premiers will only continue to increase.