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Sean Speer: Our provincial politics are being replaced by federal spending power

Commentary

As the federal Liberal Party meets this weekend in Ottawa for its biennial policy convention, there are reports that a small group of party members is ringing the alarm bells about the party’s decline at the provincial level across the country. 

The basic concern is straightforward: since the Trudeau government took office in 2015, the trend across the provinces has been conservative consolidation. With centre-right parties currently leading eight of ten provincial governments and the B.C. Liberals changing their name to distance themselves from the federal party, there’s a good case that the Liberal brand in provincial capitals is at something of a low point. 

But a narrow reading of election results and parliamentary representation may underestimate the power and influence of Liberal politics on provincial policymaking in the Trudeau era. Election victories have, by and large, been replaced by the federal spending power. The outcome in terms of provincial policymaking has essentially been the same. 

It’s not hyperbole to say that at the same time that provincial Liberal parties have declined in their popularity and standing, the Trudeau government has gone about systematically shaping provincial policymaking across the country. Just consider that most of its biggest policy accomplishments fall squarely within provincial jurisdiction. An expansive use of the federal spending power has effectively given the Liberal Party what it hasn’t been able to achieve itself at the provincial ballot box. 

It’s not a bad trade when one thinks about it. Winning provincial elections across Canada’s diverse political landscape is a pretty inefficient means of gaining control of the levers of provincial policymaking. It’s far more efficient to guide them through the federal spending power—especially when it’s paid for with deficit-financed dollars. 

There’s plenty of evidence that it’s working. Think of it this way: in any single province—with the exception of Quebec—who has had a more powerful role in shaping the policy agenda in recent years: the provincial government or the prime minister? 

The answer lies in the fact that Alberta premier Danielle Smith is currently running on the prime minister’s $10-per-day childcare idea. In December 2021, before she was premier, Smith wrote an op-ed in which she argued that the federal-provincial deal that she now champions was an example of how “conservatism is becoming indistinguishable from liberalism…[because] it’s given total control to Ottawa over how we deliver child care.” Sixteen months later, she has effectively outsourced her government’s childcare policy to the most progressive prime minister in modern history. The federal spending power can create strange bedfellows. 

But it doesn’t just have political consequences. It also manifest itself in deeper issues for Canadian federalism. We’ve grown accustomed in recent years to a progressive conception of federalism that subordinates issues of national power and elevates social welfare priorities that generally reside at the provincial and local levels. 

The old tension between “guns versus butter” has been decidedly resolved in favour of butter. The Trudeau government has used the federal spending power—including in the form of various bilateral agreements with the provinces—to boost public spending on childcare, dental care, health care, public infrastructure, and social housing. That this expansion of the welfare state has occurred during a period of heightened national security threats and in the face of growing evidence that our NATO allies are losing their patience with Canada’s parsimonious defence spending doesn’t seem to have given Ottawa any pause. 

This week The Hub published two articles that reflect the broader consequences of these policy trends. The first by Mark Johnson lamented the growing tendency towards a “banker” federalism whereby the provinces come to Ottawa in search of more federal dollars in order to avoid trade-offs or tough choices within their own jurisdictions. The second by Jack Granatstein lamented the lack of Canada’s basic military capabilities including the Trudeau government’s failure to deliver on its own modest peacekeeping commitments. These laments are of course interrelated. Banker federalism has contributed to a hollowing out of state capacity at the federal level. 

There’s always been a degree to which Ottawa’s fidelity to the division of powers is susceptible to political temptation. Legal scholar Asher Honickman’s notion of a federalism of “watertight compartments” is a compelling ideal but one that’s rarely manifested itself in practice. But this feels like something different. We have a national government today that has little interest in federal power but big ambitions for the provinces. As I’ve written before, we essentially have a Section 92 politics in a Section 91 moment.  

The consequences for the country’s capacity to protect itself from foreign interference or contribute to global security or even process passports are indeed alarming. But the Liberals are wrong to be alarmed about their recent struggles at the provincial level. The Trudeau government has effectively made provincial parties obsolete. The real power now lies with the prime minister.  

J.L. Granatstein: When mythmaking meets reality: Canada is no longer a peacekeeping nation

Commentary

In 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised at a peacekeeping conference in Paris that Canada would create a contingent of 600 peacekeepers ready for prompt deployment. By the next year that commitment had been pared down to 200 troops, and this April, while maintaining the pledge, Ottawa said its troops would not be ready until 2026. The initial offer had come while Trudeau was campaigning—unsuccessfully—for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Apparently, much like many campaign pledges, this one would be delayed and diminished, if not completely scrapped.

Still, peacekeeping continues to hold a special place in the mythology that Canada is a moral superpower—Lester Pearson’s Nobel Peace Prize for his role during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Canada’s record of serving on every peacekeeping operation for decades, and the 1988 Nobel Prize for peacekeepers that Canadians believed was really meant for their servicemen and women. The Canadian public loves peacekeeping, seeing it as a tribute to the nation’s unbiased fairmindedness and something that continues to differentiate us from the warlike and aggressive Americans.

But that mythology distorted some facts. Peacekeeping was never neutral in many instances. For instance, Ottawa deployed troops to Congo in 1960 to help keep the Communists out; at American urging it put troops in Cyprus for three decades to keep Greece and Turkey from fighting a war that would have devastated NATO’s southern flank; and American aircraft and equipment were necessary to get Canadian peacekeepers to the Iran-Iraq border in 1988.

Nonetheless, at its peak in the 1990s Canada had thousands of soldiers on peacekeeping and peace enforcement duties, the latter of which were more akin to combat than to keeping peace. Even the Canadian Armed Forces’ long commitment to the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan was viewed by many Canadians, despite all the evidence and the casualties, as peacekeeping.

Today, with the CAF facing shortfalls in personnel and with its equipment becoming increasingly obsolescent, many Canadians still believe that their country is a major player in UN peace operations. This is flatly incorrect. At the beginning of 2023, Canada had only 58 personnel on UN peacekeeping duties. In contrast, there are 700 soldiers in Latvia as part of a NATO effort to deter Russia from attacking the Baltic states. That Latvian effort, projected to increase in numbers, has severely strained the Army, which is short of infantry, gunners, and armoured crews.

The Trudeau government appears to have little interest in defence, despite its efforts in the Baltics. Moscow’s war against Ukraine saw Canada (rightly) ship much of its stockpiled ammunition and equipment to Kyiv and plans to acquire replacements will take years to materialize. Nor does China’s increasing aggressiveness seem to have registered on the government, though Ottawa did say it would increase deployments of the Navy’s frigates in the Indo-Pacific from two to three a year!

The 2023 budget, like those of previous years, gave almost no indication of more funding to rebuild the military, and the large procurement projects—F35 fighters for the RCAF and new combat vessels for the RCN—have been in the works for years, with inflation increasing costs to such an extent that few expect the original numbers of aircraft and ships to be acquired.

What this means for peacekeeping is clear. The Canadian Armed Forces is for all practical purposes unable to find even 200 trained personnel for a rapid deployment peace operation. And since deployments are usually limited to six months or at most a year, 200 more soldiers at home need to be training to go overseas. Once those deployed return to Canada, they need time to regroup and recover. In effect, 200 soldiers require 400 to 600 men and women in Canada to be involved in training, preparation, and recuperation. That is now beyond the Army’s capabilities.

If Trudeau’s original pledge of 600 troops for rapid response remained in effect, that would likely make the Latvian commitment impossible. Only more recruits for the CAF can fix this situation, and the government’s indifference to the military, the succession of sex abuse scandals, and the obsolescence of the force’s equipment have reduced recruitment to a trickle.

Thus Canadian peacekeeping is dead. That matters because peacekeeping did have useful effects in helping warring states to cease fighting. It mattered for the Canadian psyche, and it was relatively inexpensive for the government. But more seriously, the Canadian Armed Forces are near death. The public doesn’t seem to care, and the Trudeau government, much like most of its predecessors over the last thirty years, believes that only social programs and health care matter.

It’s not as if the world is at peace, and if a major war with China, Russia, North Korea, or Iran occurs, Canada will surely pay the price for its neglect of the military with the lives of its citizens.