Federalism and COVID-19 : The Conservatives want a National Plan?

, , Comments Off on Federalism and COVID-19 : The Conservatives want a National Plan?

“Other countries have released national frameworks. So why hasn’t Canada? Does the federal government have a plan to start revising health restrictions in an orderly fashion when this crisis passes?” This question, believe it or not, was asked by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who expressed “concern” that the lack of a federal plan could lead to a “patchwork” approach to opening the economy and increasing freedom of movement for citizens. [1]

Why is this surprising? Where to begin? First and foremost, Canada is a federation. Moreover, it is a highly decentralized federation, generally considered to be one of the most decentralized in the world. As almost all Canadians surely know by now health care, like other key programs of the welfare state, falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the provinces. Apart from money, the federal government can only offer limited support and assistance if requested, as some provinces, notably Quebec, have now done on a few specific pandemic issues. To be sure there is a legitimate role for the federal government on the margins of what are normally thought of as health care-related issues, such as regulating food safety and approving vaccines. But only a reckless federal government would attempt to intervene directly in such a crucial provincial area of responsibility without consultation and consensus. Even at the height of this pandemic, the premiers have been united in their assertion that there is no need for the federal government to invoke the Emergency Measures Act, which would allow it to overrule their jurisdiction in light of a pressing crisis of national proportions.  

No surprise, then, to learn that the prime minister and the premiers have been negotiating a set of guidelines for re-opening the economy via their weekly conference calls, based on scientific data regarding the health and safety of citizens. Such a document will likely outline an overarching set of guidelines and principles, not a set of hard and fast rules. In short, it will be similar to the approach taken on a variety of federal-provincial cost-shared programs such as health care that make up the welfare state, underscoring the concept of minimum national standards while allowing the provinces a measure of flexibility. Yet, historically, Conservative politicians have opposed federal efforts to  standardize and harmonize such programs, even as they welcomed the federal government’s financial support. The Harper Conservative government went much further, since it was actively opposed to any federal role in this area, and introduced several initiatives which effectively decentralized more power to the provinces.[2]

Simply put, Conservatives in Canada have traditionally supported a highly decentralized vision of Canadian federalism in which provinces have the upper hand. Liberals, instead, have seen merit in a strong federal government as well as strong provinces, and have promoted a collaborative national approach to such issues whenever possible. It was former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau who first decried the potential for the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords (proposed by the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney) to result in a “patchwork” system of benefits for Canadians, depending on where they lived, since both deals would have further limited the federal role in social programs and health care. Luckily neither one came to pass.

In times of crisis it is interesting to see how many people who have previously called for less state intervention in the economy and social welfare are among the first to demand government assistance. Similarly, it seems that this pandemic has converted at least one Conservative politician into a strong central federalist.

[1] CBC Minority Report. “Trudeau Says Provinces Will Decide When to Open Economies”. April 23, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/time-to-reopen-economy-1.5543191?cmp=newsletter_Minority%20Report_1091_22787

[2] For a detailed discussion of Harper’s approach to health care, see B. Jeffrey. Dismantling Canada. McGill Queens University Press, 2010. Pp. 275-302.