08 June 2007

The case against Mr. Harper

"A little neglect may breed great mischief"

The Harper administration's move to alter fundamentally two bilateral agreements between the Government of Canada and two provinces is proof of Ben Franklin's age old aphorism on the great consequences bred of the seemingly smallest of actions.

Stephen Harper and his administration are neglecting the commitments not only contained in the agreements involved but the fundamental principles on which those agreements are based.

Two Travelors On the Road to Perdition

John Crosbie has waded into the affair, through private correspondence now provided to the news media, and his memoranda identify the core of the problem. Unfortunately, along the way he engages in an example of historical revisionism which would make Stalinists seem like rank amateurs at the game of altering the public record to state the opposite of what occurred. He also proposes an unduly complex series of possible actions that would, on some level, also strike the fundamental principles underpinning the agreements he helped negotiate.

For his part, Premier Danny Williams has met the Harper affront with entirely appropriate anger and indignation. Sadly, his mercurial temper has led him to run bare headed at the whole matter. In the process, the Premier has set himself on a course that cannot attain its destination.

He has set an impossible policy goal, namely removal of non-renewable resource revenues from the calculation under Equalization of a province's fiscal capacity. The results of such an approach would be to create fundamental inequities in a federal program that ought to be equitable in its treatment of all provinces. As difficult as some may find the O'Brien Equalization formula, cap or no cap, it is at least an honest compromise among contending proposals on Equalization. It's result would be fair.

Mr. Williams has set himself on a political goal - namely defeating Harper at the polls - which is, if not impossible, one which also sets an appalling - if not downright dangerous - precedent. For the first time in recent memory, an administration of one province has set itself on a policy of defeating the administration of another jurisdiction.

Were the Premier to carry his campaign beyond a few speeches, he is unlikely to achieve that political goal either, but at the same time he has set a precedent which would justify any administration in Canada, federal or provincial, overtly or covertly conspiring to defeat Mr. Williams or any of his successors. His anti-Harper campaign is potentially as dangerous for the future of the country as the grievance he seeks to redress; while his intentions may be excellent, Mr. Williams might well find in his actions proof of another truism about the road to perdition.

Casey has it right

Of all the politicians discussing Equalization and the various accords, the only one to get it right is Nova Scotia Tory Bill Casey.

He said a Canadian signature on a contract should mean something and if the government can walk away from its commitment, what does the future hold?

“It is our reputation as a country,” he said in the House. “It is important that people around the world know when the government of Canada signs a contract, it is bullet proof, one can depend on it. It is important. It is bullet proof, solid gold.”

No one has said it as cleanly as that. Mr. Crosbie and Mr. Williams are chasing irrelevant side-issues and each does so for his own individual reasons.

Both are missing the issue of greatest importance to the people of the province. That is as unconscionable as it is unfathomable.

Section 60 of the 1985 Atlantic Accord - the real Atlantic Accord - states simply that neither party can amend the enabling legislation unilaterally. Yet that is exactly what Stephen Harper is doing in one consequential amendment in his current budget bill.

If Mr. Harper can change one provision of the Accord and get away with it, what else can he change in that deal? Management? Revenues? He can change anything he wants.

Successive Liberal and Conservative federal government's have honoured the Accord both in letter and spirit since it was signed. (Mr. Crosbie ought to know that his claims are false on this point) Successive federal governments have improved on the original deal to cope with problems. That would include, incidentally, the 2005 subsidiary agreement that delivered - apparently - what Mr. Crosbie could not get himself or - if we look to 1990 - didn't want to give the ingrates in his own province.

In the end, Mr. Crosbie seems to embody his own cheap words about cake and regurgitation. Entirely appropriate, given how many Conservatives seem to be guilty of the same failings they usually have attributed to others.

But all that ignores the very dangerous course Mr. Harper is on, one made no less perilous by the focus of both Mr. Williams and Mr. Crosbie on the irrelevant.

Changing the 1985 Atlantic Accord - the real one - can take away the very basis on which the second one even exists. Changing the original agreement can take away the entire industry, not merely the extra revenue from federal transfers.

And it's not like that thought hasn't been tossed into the public discussion. Conservative Norm Doyle told a VOCM audience yesterday that times changes and so the Accord must change as well. He warned that nothing is permanent, or words to that effect. Under pressure, it would seem that something a little closer to the truth slipped out than anything Doyle has said previously on the offshore.

Fundamentally, the case against Mr. Harper is exactly as Bill Casey has described it.

It remains a mystery why Norm Doyle and Loyola Hearn, cabinet minister's in Newfoundland when the 1985 Accord was reached, would put the whole thing in jeopardy.

Likewise, it remains a mystery why both Danny Williams and John Crosbie have each gone off
on their own tangents, ignoring in the process a simple point with potentially profound consequences.

Bill Casey figured it out.

What's wrong with the rest of them?