The Power of Provinces and the Importance of the 2011 Ontario Election
Aug 23, 2011

The Power of Provinces and the Importance of the 2011 Ontario Election

When Stephen Harper won a majority in the federal election he did this first and foremost by attracting a large body of voters who had not voted for him in the past and may not in the future. Discussions of the political seppuku committed by Liberals and the Bloc, discussions of vote splitting among the left, and the like, while interesting are distinctly secondary to this fact. These voters may be centrists or moderates, they may have been attracted by Harper's message of fiscal restraint and economic stability, and many of them may not envision a far right Canada, considerably different from today's, as is so poignantly feared by the left. It is to these voters in Ontario that I now speak.

In Canada's political system the main check on the executive power of the prime minister's office does not come from the parliament, as they are one in a majority situation. It does not come from debate between the chambers of parliament for the senate is procedural and powerless. And it does not come from the judiciary which is deferential to parliament and based on a weak constitution. The US has all those checks. In Canada, the main check, the main source of debate for how we shape our country is in the relationship between the provinces and the federal government. In the next couple years major negotiations on issues like health care transfer payments and the equalization program are up for debate. These are the defining issues of our country and the outcome of negotiations between Harper's government and the provinces will determine the extent to which Canada becomes as Harper might envision it.

Among the provinces, no province has the negotiating clout that Ontario enjoys. With almost 40% of Canada's population what happens here sets the framing for what happens in other provinces and, indeed, historical precedent has demonstrated that in the major negotiations between provinces and the federal government, Ontario has usually led the way. Today, most of the west is in close step with the Conservative - Alberta and Saskatchewan (under the right wing Saskatchewan party) definitively so and Manitoba seems poised to transition to Conservative provincial leadership. Quebec is so mired in political uncertainty that its next provincial election is nearly impossible to call and attention by Jean Charest will almost definitely be inwardly focused and dependent on the transient ramifications of the moment. Newfoundland & Labrador looks set to re-elect a conservative government provincially, although Atlantic Canada has never had much clout anyways despite being the most dependent recipients of equalization payments.

It is for these reasons that the election in Ontario is so important as the key negotiations that will take place to shape the future of our country will be fought in Ontario - but only if there is a credible adversary to fight them. Should Ottawa, Queens Park, and Toronto all be heavily conservative, there is simply no check left on Harper's vision for Canada.

To the moderates who voted for Harper, I urge you to consider voting now for the Liberals. This is the strategy that ensures a moderate outcome. Harper will still, of course, have an enormous amount of influence. Whatever fiscal responsibility and economic stability he may or may not bring to the table will still be there. But voting for the Liberals provincially will help curb the excesses, prevents the most extreme of Conservative actions from occurring, and helps to maintain the basic institutions of Canada such as our healthcare that can make us proud. A moderate approach is not to give Harper's conservatives a compete monopoly on all possible checks in the Canadian system; a moderate approach gives Harper a chance to do something good while maintaining the kind of robust, adversarial debate that ensures it will be good.

I have previously argued that the key narrative in this election is, and should be, the green energy file. It is the issue of our times and Ontario's leadership in North America is too important to throw away. This post is not meant to supplant that narrative with the 'check on Harper' narrative. It does, however, increase the importance of this election in ways beyond just the key narrative of green energy. And not at all coincidentally, it means a vote for for the Liberals either way.

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