April 20, 2006 by Joseph Krohn
Constitutional questions kept in deep storage since the early 1990s are about to get a fresh airing, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday. While he promised to stop short of the ambitious, tumultuous Meech Lake project of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, Harper said the do-nothing constitutional era of the former Liberal government is about to end. “We will go step by step,” Harper told reporters after speaking to nearly 2,000 business leaders in Montreal. “Mr. Mulroney tried to change everything and it was ultimately not successful. Mr. (Jean) Chrétien and the previous Liberal government decided it would change nothing and reform nothing. We happen to believe the federation has to evolve.”
Harper said he will move to put a formal limit on the power of the federal government to spend money in provincial areas of jurisdiction, although he avoided saying if a constitutional amendment would be required. “We have the intention of limiting our power, if such a power exists,” Harper said. “My preference is to have a formal limitation on this power. We’re not talking today, we’re not talking yet, about constitutional amendments, but my position is known.” Harper’s plan to stay out of areas of provincial responsibility is part of a package of policies that have special appeal in Quebec, the province that may hold the key to a future Conservative majority government. In his speech to the Montreal Board of Trade, Harper promised a new era of openness that will include a Quebec that is “autonomous.”
Harper later said every province should be autonomous in a federation like Canada. Harper also promised to start addressing the so-called fiscal imbalance within the year. The provinces have long argued that Ottawa is collecting billions in tax dollars that should go to the provincial capitals instead, although each province has its own idea of how this imbalance should be corrected. “We will present specific proposals on the fiscal imbalance . . . and let me tell you what they won’t include: a hike in federal spending in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction,” he said.
Harper’s words had politicians from two Quebec provincial parties applauding at the head table of the big-business luncheon. Liberal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoit Pelletier called Harper’s plans “a very good start.” “It’s just the beginning,” Pelletier said. “These elements are proving that we are going toward something that is new, and we have the historic responsibility to take this opportunity in order to make sure we advance the case of Quebec while strengthening the federation.” Action democratique du Quebec Leader Mario Dumont said major changes are coming to the way Canada deals with Quebec. “There is a healthy spirit of co-operation that is very different from what we’ve seen for years,” Dumont said. “We must take full profit from Mr. Harper’s force of character, his desire to do things differently, the door he has opened wide to Quebec.”