Canadian Politics from Canada's Centre

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Canadian Politics Interview: Canadian-Politics.com's Jo McNair

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What is the state of Canadian politics? I asked that question a little while ago, and promised interviews on the topic. The first interview answers have come in from Jo McNair, the very well spoken writer of Canadian-Politics.com. Here's the first part of what Jo wrote.

I've been asked by Centrerion Canadian Politics to chip in my two cents' worth on the current state of Canadian politics, specifically in reference to 10 key areas: national security, foreign affairs, health, the environment, the economy, post-secondary education, separatism, the judicial system, social equality and innovation.

The missing issue

I will start off by explaining that I don't entirely agree that these are necessarily the most important issues in Canadian politics today. Some of them, while currently problematic, I believe to be symptoms of a larger issue that isn't mentioned here - namely our current constitutional organisation.

Simply put, it is my belief that while the way the country was organised in 1867 might have made sense back then, it is completely unsuited for the realities of our country today and is in fact causing more problems than it is solving.

Let's look at two of the items on that list: health and post-secondary education. Firstly, I wouldn't include these as key issues in Canadian politics, if we mean "Canadian" to be federal, or national, since both fall under provincial jurisdiction. Because they are provincial issues, there really isn't any point in trying to formulate a "national" approach since the provinces like to protect their little spheres of responsibility and don't appreciate Ottawa's "interference" - unless said interference comes in the form of a large cheque with no strings attached. This is probably the only issue on which I'm in complete agreement with Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois - health and education should not be issues in federal elections.

However, it is clear that the state of both healthcare and post-secondary education in Canada are important issues to Canadians - which is why every federal party has a position on these issues and why these issues tend to dominate political debate at the federal level. The real root of the problem here is constitutional. In 1867, there was no national healthcare program. There weren't any social services to speak of - no welfare state as we know it today. Health and education were handed over to the provinces in part because they were considered "local" issues best left to a more "local" level of government, and in part because they weren't considered to be important enough for the federal government to bother with since it was mostly private organisations and religious orders who supplied those services - not government. If you read the actual section in the Constitution Act (1867) that deals with health, the provinces are only obligated to build and maintain hospitals, asylums and the like - infrastructure - not provide actual healthcare services. No one foresaw the welfare state system that we have in place today, never mind the exorbitant costs of government-funded healthcare. Consequently, provinces now find themselves saddled with a huge financial burden. Healthcare costs alone average about 40% of provincial budgets, and it is estimated that by 2025 or so, that percentage will rise to 70% of provincial budgets. How on earth will provinces be able to fund anything else?

Simply put, health and education should not be provincial responsibilities because the provinces, while constitutionally bound to provide them and to provide them at comparable levels of service, aren't starting off on a level playing field. We have very rich provinces - OK, one very rich province, and a lot of fairly poor ones. Does it make sense to burden economically disparate sub-national entities with the costs of programs that most Canadians hold so dear, and expect them to provide fairly equal levels of service at that? Not to me, it doesn't.

Ideally, we should be looking at moving health and education out of provincial jurisdiction and hand them over to the federal government. There would be so many advantages to this, it truly surprises me that no one seriously discusses this option. For one, I think Canada is one of, if not the only Western nation that doesn't have a national education curriculum. Canadian kids should be learning the same things to the same standards from coast to coast to coast. I'm not saying there isn't room for some "regional" component to what is taught, but the varying degrees the quality of education provided by the provinces - if we use measurements such as the results of international tests - is unacceptable - at least to me. I don't think kids in some provinces are less intelligent than kids in Alberta (who regularly score the best results on these tests), I think Alberta simply has far more money to put into building a quality education system. This isn't something that should be left to the provinces and their grossly-divergent ability to fund these programs. And these same points apply to healthcare as well - even more so.

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