2012 friction

If 2011 was Canada’s year for election, then 2012 looks to be the year for friction.

Federal-provincial friction, that is.

This past year, as you will recall, witnessed a remarkable number of provincial electoral contests, from east to west.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Yukon, incumbent governments were re-elected handily.

In a year where most of them had been written off by the pundits, that’s pretty remarkable.

Recessionary times, scandals and an appetite for “change” should have have meant disaster for the Manitoba New Democrats and the Ontario Liberals, where both parties had been heading toward political oblivion. But they, and the others, were all handily re-elected.

For Stephen Harper — also re-elected in 2011, and with a healthy majority, too — all of these election results have important consequences. For the Conservative prime minister, 2012 is likely to be a very challenging year. Provincial governments, now re-elected, are feeling their oats.  Federal-provincial friction now seems inevitable.

Two recent events suggest why this so.

First, the gathering of finance ministers in Victoria earlier this month looked more like the commencement of a prizefight than an actual first-ministers’ meeting.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty broke his word about the financing of health care, and several provincial governments were outraged.  Flaherty looked unmoved, however, and said there would be no negotiation, thereby infuriating his provincial counterparts even more.

Then, on Thursday of last week, the Supreme Court of Canada gave the Harper regime the judicial equivalent of slap in the face: The high court ruled Harper and Flaherty had completely overstepped themselves with legislation designed to create a single national securities regulator.

“The dominant tide of flexible federalism, however strong its pull may be, cannot sweep designated powers out to sea, nor erode the constitutional balance inherent in the federal state,” the court wrote in its unanimous ruling. It was a strongly worded — and, to many, wholly unexpected — decision, one which should give the federal government pause as the new year begins.

But will it? Messrs. Harper and Flaherty, at one time, were both seen as strong advocates for provincial rights. Infamously, Harper even once penned a polemic calling for the erection of “firewalls” around his favoured province of Alberta, to keep the despised federal government at bay. But now that Harper and Flaherty are the two men who run the federal show, their previous commitment to provincial rights is a distant memory. They have become more centralizing than the federal Liberals they replaced.

Will Harper and Flaherty heed the Supreme Court’s warning, and try to avoid a battle with the provinces over the funding of health care?  Or will they, as Flaherty suggested, break their health care promise, and stir up a jurisdictional war between Ottawa and the provinces? The early signs do not suggest peace is at hand.

“When the water starts to dry up, the animals start to look at each other funny,” my Conservative friend Rod Love once said, and his funny truism can be easily applied to what lies ahead politically in 2012. With shrinking revenues and ballooning costs, things are going to get very tight. In 2012, all governments are going to start “looking at each other funny.”

Canadian voters, meanwhile, aren’t likely to consider the ensuing friction funny at all.

For them, 2012 may well be a year to forget.

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