Harper missed chance to show leadership

PM should go to Atlantic Canada and make case for equalization changes

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The Gazette, Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Stephen Harper seems to think his dispute with dissenting provinces on equalization is a legal issue, and has dared them to sue him.

That was a big mistake. It's not a legal matter, it's a leadership moment.

He needs to go to the Atlantic provinces, either Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, and make a major address explaining why they can't have it both ways.

In other words, they can have the full resource royalty benefits of the 2005 Atlantic Accord, or they can have the benefits of the new equalization formula. They can choose one or the other, as grownups, but not both.

When it's explained to Atlantic Canadians, in a logical, coherent manner, you won't find a more generous and sharing people in the country. They've already been sharing their best and brightest with the rest of the country since confederation. My Cape Breton grandmother used to say Nova Scotia's leading exports was brains.

But if you make it into a fight, if you're daring have-not provinces to sue Ottawa, then it becomes another storyline. Then it's Upper Canada screwing the Maritimes, and that's different. Then it brings back memories of Harper's comments about a culture of dependency in Atlantic Canada. Oh yeah, so that's what he thinks of us. Screw him.

That the leading voice of Atlantic grievance happens to be Newfoundland's Danny Williams, a Nor'Easter of a blowhard if there ever was one, has made Harper's life more complicated.

Everyone understands the rhetorical imperatives of Newfoundland premiers, going back to Joey Smallwood. It's them vs. the mainland. Everyone gets that part. What nobody on the mainland gets is the toxic levels of Williams's discourse, calling the prime minister of Canada a liar, and openly calling for the defeat of the national leader of his own party. Williams has all the bluster of a schoolyard bully, and sooner or later he is going to get called on it.

Harper's task is to make the case for fairness before Atlantic Canadians, and while he's at it explain why Ottawa must set aside the letter of the 2005 Atlantic Accord providing it would remain in force irrespective of any new equalization arrangements. And the reason is that the fiscal capacity of recipient provinces like Newfoundland can't exceed that of donor provinces like Ontario.

Fairness and sharing might be fundamental characteristics of Canada, but they are not a one-way street.

But it's Harper's job, his unique leadership role as prime minister, to make this case. It's what the Americans call the bully pulpit in defining the role of the president.

Nobody else can take on this role. Not the finance minister, Jim Flaherty, who on behalf of his department is trying to undo the damage done by Paul Martin's open-bar policy on equalization and the offshore. Not Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, the senior Atlantic minister.

Only the prime minister can make this case. Williams and Nova Scotia's Rodney MacDonald can defend their regional interests, everyone understands that, too. The prime minister's role is to defend the national interest.

And if he has to go into the lion's den to do it, that only enhances the leadership moment.

You can look this up under Lester B. Pearson and the flag debate, when he went to a rambunctious Canadian Legion meeting in Winnipeg in 1964.

You can look it up under Pierre Trudeau and this very offshore ownership issue, when he went to Memorial University in the 1980 campaign and told an unruly student audience, "I'd like to tell you it could be all yours, but that wouldn't be Canada," which he said is about "fairness and sharing."

You can look it up under Brian Mulroney and minority-language rights in Manitoba, when he went to Winnipeg in 1984, and told a frosty audience that he stood where Sir John A. Macdonald stood on this fundamental bargain of Confederation.

In every case, these national leaders turned jeers to cheers in the room, and won the country over to their position because of their political courage.

This is the choice Harper faces on this issue now. He can go to the Atlantic, make the case, and win. Or he can stay home, say nothing, and lose.

It's called standing up for Canada, prime minister. It's your job.

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