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User-pay disaster relief? A suddenly forgotten idea that needs to stay that way!

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Chris Alexander

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If every dark and rain-filled cloud has a silver lining, one thing we can hope for from the horrifying flooding that hit Calgary last week is that the official response to the disaster may improve things for all Canadians.

That is to say, we can hope it will lay to rest, once and for all, the astonishingly terrible idea Defence Minister Peter MacKay's Parliamentary Secretary ran up the flagpole early this year, presumably with the approval of his leaders, to see if anyone would salute.

To wit, according to Chris Alexander, the Conservative MP for Ajax-Pickering, just east of Toronto, Ottawa needed to consider the notion the Canadian Armed Forces ought to be able to charge affected municipalities for emergency relief services during natural disasters.

Nobody much saluted or even waved, thank goodness, when Alexander told the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti that the Canadian military needed to consider charging provinces and municipalities when troops helped taxpayers caught up in a natural disaster because, as he put it, "we're under fiscal pressure, the federal government, to be prudent, to be parsimonious, to be good stewards of the public purse." (Emphasis irresistibly added.)

"We have to make tough choices, and we want those services and those core functions to remain strong and in order to do that we’re going to do some cost recovery under this heading of support to the civilian authority in case of natural disaster," said Alexander during the Jan. 10 CBC broadcast, making it sound very much as if this were an actual plan, not merely a balloon being floated to see who might take a potshot at it.

Thankfully, in the aftermath of the floods that drove 100,000 Calgarians from their homes, there was no more talk of cost-recovery -- which even die-hard fiscal hardliners surely understand is a terrible idea if only because we humans can't control the forces of nature, and when they sometimes get the better of us we owe it to our fellow citizens to ensure they are helped in a way only governments can help.

Talk about a recipe for catastrophe if we force cash-starved municipalities -- already hard hit by downloading of the costs of governing by senior governments -- to have to think about whether they can afford to rescue their own citizens in an emergency!

Could we even have called ourselves a country if we'd told the people of Calgary they were on their own and would have to foot the multi-billion-dollar bill for repairing the damage all by themselves?

So, given this, it was particularly uplifting to see our Canadian troops in the thick of it, bringing relief to Calgary and other communities in Southern Alberta with alacrity and fortitude -- and without anyone suggesting the victims of the flood should have to pay them back for their help.

I know there are cynics out there who will suggest that the cost-recovery idea is only off the table because the disaster happened in the Conservative heartland, home to so many government ministers.

One hopes that the opposite is true: that seeing real disaster in the streets of one of Canada's most well-groomed and civilized cities has persuaded even the most ideologically inflexible of market fundamentalists in the federal cabinet -- you likely all know whom I have in mind -- that there are times when a government must intervene to protect citizens, and moreover that assisting the civil authorities in a natural disaster is an entirely proper role for the Armed Forces.

Perhaps we should take this thought a little farther, too: that there are circumstances important enough -- the care of the needy, for example, the education of our children -- that ought not be dumped by senior governments onto municipalities so that provincial and federal politicians can get the credit for frugality while evading some of their most serious responsibilities.

The principle should also apply to individual Canadians who find themselves in peril and must be rescued.

Certainly those of us who live in municipalities, and nowadays that would be virtually all of us, can be relieved that the idea of user-pay disaster relief is apparently deader than the proverbial mackerel.

Let's do what we can to make sure it stays that way!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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