Ooops. Is something happening here? Here’s suave right-winger Stephen Harper, out a-courting in the East, suddenly brandishing a bouquet of flaming pink flowers, causing all four Atlantic premiers to swoon.
First, some explanation about the subtly seductive charms of Stephen’s startling left-wing bouquet. The term “10-province standard” probably doesn’t ring a bell with you, being the talk of bureaucratic financial wonks; but to the premiers, it’s that purest of ambrosia: more federal money.
The federal-provincial equalization formula is now calculated on the provincial revenues of five provinces — all except the four Atlantic provinces and Alberta. These revenues are averaged out on a per capita basis, and the provinces under the average get equalization to bring them up.
A 10-province formula would do this: It would add Alberta’s oil wealth to the calculation, raising the per capita average and thus also the payouts to the have-not provinces. For Nova Scotia, it could be as much as $60 million to $70 million more, depending on the ups and downs of the national economy.
Alberta was kept out back in the 1970s on grounds it would raise the average and be too costly for the federal treasury. Except for the provinces that are looking for more money, the only voice I’ve heard arguing for this recently is the left-wing Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in a recent report. And the CCPA was supporting the 10-province calculation as an alternative to the idea of letting Nova Scotia and Newfoundland keep their petroleum royalties without having their equalization docked by Ottawa, an adjustment that would create tricky demands for more money in other provinces with natural resources.
But those old lefties have no sense of dash and daring. Stephen is promising both — the 10-province standard, and we keep the petroleum cash, too!
No wonder Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams told the media to buzz off and leave Stephen alone about that “culture of defeat” stuff. And here’s John Hamm: “Stephen is a leader who has exceeded all expectations. He is ready to win and ready to govern. He is ready to change the culture in Ottawa and give Canadians the accountable, honest government they expect and deserve.” He even made a joke about being “too excited.”
This is love, no doubt about it. But is it the real thing, or a dangerous infatuation? Has the young man, standing so stiffly on principle only recently, so quickly learned the beguiling arts of political seduction perfected by such rouÃ©s as Brian Mulroney (one of his mentors) and Jean ChrÃ©tien: lurch to the left before the election by promising them money you probably can’t afford, because it doesn’t matter the morning after?
But wait; it’s not the morning after yet, and young Stephen still has to go back home to Alberta. What will old grouches like Ralph Klein have to say about giving more of Alberta’s hard-earned money (albeit indirectly, through federal taxation) to the shiftless masses of the East, thus deepening the “culture of defeat?”
Stephen will then no doubt change the tune a bit — he’ll announce he can get the money back in other ways. He’ll cripple the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. And he can do that without starting a revolution. But will he dare say how deeply he’ll cut EI, which may in fact start a revolution? Or will he do what Paul Martin did in 1995 — slash the works?
And what will the financial press say, assuming they can take a minute off from bashing NDP Leader Jack Layton for presuming to equalize the wealth? If they’re kind to Stephen, you might ask what they’d say if Layton proposed the same thing. Would they call it a Bolshevik Revolution?
Finally, in practical political terms, what does the endorsement of the four Atlantic premiers amount to? Does it make Harper suddenly a serious contender in these parts, or is it not worth a hill of beans? To repeat the big question: What’s going on in those mysterious voter minds?