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Harper's government is flailing and lashing out

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It's only two days old, but Harper's 2014 budget is generating serious conflict within the Conservatives' own ranks and exacerbating a major rift with the provinces.

Not bad for a day's work.

But the really big news about budget 2014, as flawed as it seems to be, is that the nasty "Fair Elections Act" is even worse.

It is much worse, in fact, and continues to pose a very real threat to the practice of democracy in Canada.

If you are not up to speed, have a look at some of what rabble has published on "Fair Elections" in the past few days:

The 'Fair Elections Act' is scary!

Harper's election reform menu has too many poison pills

Five things you need to know about the Fair Elections Act

Voter suppression is cheap and easy -- and the 'Fair' Elections Act will keep it that way

If this Committee won't travel, none will

As NDP Leader Tom Mulcair pointed out on Wednesday, this is the first time in Canadian history a government is using closure to push major changes to the electoral law through Parliament.

Prime Minister Harper's government resorted to time allocation, or closure, to cut off discussion of Fair Elections at the "approval in principle stage," Second Reading, and the Act is now before the Commons Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.

The NDP proposed that the Committee travel the country to hear from as many Canadians as possible on this series of crucial reforms to Canada's electoral rules.

The Conservatives on the committee showed a glimmer of interest in that idea, at first, then backed away -- no doubt on orders from on high.

But the NDP is fighting back.

The House -- normally, routinely and unanimously -- approves Committee travel and a number of House committees currently have major travel plans: to the U.S and as far afield as Chile.

On Wednesday, the NDP's House Leader Nathan Cullen said his party would withhold that unanimous consent unless the Conservatives agreed to allow the Committee studying Fair Elections to travel across Canada.

If the Conservatives won't allow Canadians to be fully consulted on matters that deeply affect their democracy, the NDP said, then all the House committees can stay home.

It is not clear what happens next, but what is clear is that only vigorous opposition, both inside and outside Parliament, will have any chance of forcing the Conservatives to change this very flawed piece of legislation.

The next move is the Harper government's and Canadians should watch very closely.

Picking a major fight with the provinces -- how un-Conservative!

As for the budget, it reaffirmed the Conservatives' commitment to the Canada Jobs Grant that was announced in last year's budget.

That Grant would go to businesses to train people for jobs that, in theory at any rate, actually exist. The government proposes paying for this new program by diverting $300 million of federal money from provincially run training and upgrading programs -- programs that are largely aimed at the most disadvantaged Canadians.

All of the provinces, including those that have Conservative governments, argue that those provincial programs are quite effective and successful, thank you very much. In fact, the federal government's own evaluations say as much.

If Harper wants to fund a new, additional type of employer-focused training program, the provinces say, let him do it with new money. The Conservatives could easily come up with an extra $300 million. The government, despite its ideological commitment to austerity, is not short on cash. In fact, were it not for the 2014 budget's near-fictional $3 billion "contingency" cushion, Canada would be on track to eliminating its federal deficit this year.

The 2014 budget's hard line on the Canada Job Grant came just as Employment Minister Jason Kenney was trying to play Mr. Nice Guy and negotiate some kind of accommodation with the provinces.

Now, Harper's government is threatening to play hardball and simply take away the $300 million from the provinces and implement the Jobs Grant on its own, without any provincial participation whatsoever.

As we have pointed out in this space before, this is an unprecedented stance for a Canadian Conservative government to take.

For more than half a century the federal Conservatives have advocated what they have called a flexible and respectful approach to Canada's federal system. They have frequently accused the Liberals of being domineering in their treatment of their provincial partners.

Now, the Conservatives are playing bully in a way even the Liberals never dared.

Flies in the face of the way federalism is practiced in Canada

If you consider training a type of education, then it is clearly within provincial jurisdiction, constitutionally.

Canadian constitutional practice does give the federal government the power to spend its own money in provincial areas of jurisdiction such as health and education.

But the federal government has tended to be careful in its use of that power.

The Canada Health Act of the early 1980s is the most dramatic example of a federal government drawing a line in the sand with the provinces. In that case, the aim was to shore up the universal, publicly funded, coast-to-coast health insurance system the federal government had negotiated with the provinces nearly 20 years earlier.

The Canada Health Act did not, however, take one cent of federal health money from the provinces.

That Act only laid out some basic rules to assure all Canadians had access to health care, wherever they lived, and to prevent corrosive practices such as extra billing, whereby some doctors who received fees for their services from the public insurance schemes also forced patients to pay extra fees.

What Harper is proposing with the Canada Jobs Grant is to unilaterally walk away from the sort of joint federal-provincial program that is the keystone of Canada's federal system.

The Parti Québecois government of Quebec often uses inflated and demagogic rhetoric to decry the faults of the federal system.

In this case, however, they got it right. They call what Harper is doing with the Job Grant "predatory federalism."

Who's for income splitting? Not the Finance Minister

One cannot be sure if Finance Minister Flaherty's intervention on the Jobs Grant issue, at this delicate moment, was a relief for Kenney, or whether it annoyed him, by pulling the rug out from under his negotiations.

However, we can be sure that what Flaherty said about one of the Conservatives' major 2011 campaign promises definitely got under Kenney's skin -- and, it seems, the Prime Minister's skin, as well.

In 2011, Harper promised that when the budget was balanced his government would allow two parent families with children to split their income, and thus lower their income tax bill.

At first blush, it looks like a fairly innocent idea.

The Broadbent Institute, among others, has shown, however, that only 14 per cent of Canadians would benefit from income splitting, and that the greatest benefits would go to those with the highest incomes.

Broadbent is not alone in this evaluation. The small-c conservative C.D. Howe Institute has a similar analysis, and says there are better ways to use any future federal surpluses.

Flaherty must have been reading some of those analyses.

On Wednesday, he very publicly mused that income splitting might not be such a great idea, after all.

It did not take long before Kenney was telling anyone who would listen that, as far as he was concerned, income splitting was still government policy.

And, in the House during Question Period, the Prime Minister would not even let the man who has presented ten budgets on behalf of his government answer questions on the issue.

Harper repeatedly popped up on Wednesday, to utter the kind of vague and slippery non-answers he resorts to when he gets in a tough spot.

It's all in a day's work, and the Conservatives will say they have more than a year, and another budget, before the next federal election.

Right now, though, it looks like Harper is flailing about and lashing out -- at the provinces, at those who care about democracy, at his own senior cabinet ministers -- at one and the same time.


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