Blurring political categories
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 7 January 2006)

Long ago, the Toronto city council had an alderman who liked to introduce motions about public broadcasting. His colleagues always defeated them, because broadcasting was outside their jurisdiction. Why waste time chattering about it? Still, the alderman was a passionate CBC fan. He couldn't be silenced.

People laughed at him, but lately I've realized he was ahead of his time. Today all politicians at all levels plunge into what retailers call "category blurring." In commerce that means gas stations selling sandwiches and grocery stores selling DVDs. In politics it means the three levels of government confuse their functions. Cities have traditionally depended on the provinces but now expect Ottawa to help as well. Meanwhile, Ottawa has been busily invading territory once constitutionally claimed by the provinces.

This has reached a new level in the current election campaign. Gunshots violate the peace of Yonge Street and the federal Liberals suddenly start talking about local policing and neighbourhood planning. Paul Martin calls street crime one of "the consequences of exclusion." (Is it possible someone feels excluded by the world's greatest country, despite the "Canadian values" Martin rants about?)

The Liberals will fix it with a "hope and opportunity" package, including job creation for depressed neighbourhoods. The Conservatives, more modest, promise only tougher federal law. The Liberal position means Ottawa will once more try to reorder provincial and local priorities. Almost certainly, Ottawa will fail. It's too far away, and too much influenced by which minister from which region holds power at the moment.

But the federal government believes it knows better about almost everything. It knows, for instance, about hospitals. If citizens complain that waiting lines are too long, the Liberals send in money and rewrite regulations.

That probably won't work either, since Ottawa bureaucrats can't hope to understand the diverse health services of Canada. They never pause to wonder whether they are creating expectations no one can satisfy.

That was the style of Jean Chretien's government, and it seems odd that the man who shoved him aside has imitated him and gone even farther. The Chretien Liberals weren't brilliant performers in their traditional Ottawa roles (defence, immigration, national unity, trade) but they loved fiddling with provincial business, such as health and education.

They decided six years ago to bring the universities up to speed. Apparently, academic researchers weren't doing what they should to advance the frontiers of knowledge. A national strategy was needed, so Ottawa created the Canada Research Chairs, "to make Canada one of the world's top five countries for research and development," according to the Web site of the agency running the project. More money would bring home Canadian scholars now working abroad, attract foreign professors, and retain the best we have.

The federal treasury now pays about $300-million for Canada Research Chairs. The program will soon involve 2,000 professors, each of them no doubt dedicated to helping their universities, all 73 of them, "become world-class centres of research." In theory this will enhance competitiveness. Current holders of the chairs work on problems that range from premature births to industrial waste and from arthritis to sex among teenagers, all under the minister of industry.

The federal government could have given the money to the provinces, which are responsible for universities; or it could have sent the money to the universities and let them decide how to use it. Instead, Ottawa inserted a new layer of bureaucratic decision-making, complete with demands for accountability, and created a fresh place for itself in higher education. When it provides money, Ottawa must assert itself.

Those who feel they desperately need help, notably urban politicians, see nothing wrong with obscuring the differences between governments. Are those who dislike this trend just old-fashioned pedants, more interested in legalisms than action? Certainly that's the impression the Liberals give.

A year ago, one of the star Liberal candidates countered my misgivings on this score by saying, "Are you a lawyer?" I'm not sure whether he thought that only lawyers have the right to constitutional opinions or only lawyers worry about them. Either way, he considered my objections irrelevant.

But surely category blurring confuses the citizens, makes them less able to understand which government does what, and further distances them from an increasingly opaque political system.

Then why does Ottawa do it? Because it can. It has plenty of money (notice the embarrassing surpluses) and the other governments have little. And why is that? It's our tax system, but don't try to understand it. It's one of those inviolate Canadian values.

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