Spending powerless

Here at the sprawling Maclean’s Ottawa nerve centre, we sometimes while away the hours asking one another whatever happened to Stephen Harper’s throne speech commitment to introduce “legislation to place formal limits on the use of federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction without provincial consent and to provide for opting out with compensation.” Amazing as that may seem, this odd hobby makes us only the second-geekiest news bureau in Ottawa. The geekiest, hands down, is Le Devoir’s, which wasn’t content with mere water-cooler chat about the spending-power-limitation promise; they actually called around to find out.

The answer: a bill is ready to roll but the feds are reluctant to introduce it because the Charest government has warned the Harper legions that it doesn’t like the bill’s content and will criticize it when it becomes public. Which is problematic because grand schemes to limit the spending power have no purpose in realpolitik except to win applause in Quebec.

Toujours selon Le Devoir, the Harper bill promises “fair” — but not necessarily complete — compensation for any province that opts out of a “new national shared-cost program” and sets up a similar program of its own. This is phrasing to warm the cockles of anyone’s heart who was a political science undergrad in the late 1980s, because lo, the spending-power language in the Meech Lake Accord was also all about new national shared-cost program. As we learned back then, this meant it would have no application to old programs, or those of only limited geographical application, or those in which costs weren’t shared between Ottawa and provinces. In other words, here was a set of loopholes you could drive a truck fleet through.

This is the sort of thing you can’t slip past the folks at la SAIC, where teams of bureaucrats are paid big money to be even geekier than the Maclean’s and Le Devoir Ottawa bureaus. “The programs they’re proposing to limit, there haven’t been any like that since Meech!” one source says. So apparently Quebec wants to be able to opt out of programs for which the feds foot the entire bill, as with the Millennium Scholarships, as well as from old programs as well as new.

The article proceeds with perfectly astonishing news: somebody had a meeting with Rona Ambrose in her role as Canada’s Quietest Intergovernmental-Affairs Minister Ever. Perhaps less astonishing is that it didn’t go well.

Also apparently Stephen Harper is a bit of a party crasher. That’s what it says in the paper anyway.