Friday, September 01, 2017

On structural barriers

As the NDP's federal leadership race approaches its conclusion, Tom Parkin has been doing some noteworthy writing on some of the issues which voters may want to keep in mind. And I'll start with Parkin's discussion as to how some of the systems which most deserve to be modeled may not translate easily to Canada's political realities.

In particular, Parkin notes that the Nordic model which holds plenty of appeal for social democrats may not be as easily implemented in a federal system where crucial authority over social and labour policy is held by the provinces:
We should import the Nordic model, say many Canadian social democrats. But—is it coincidental?—the Nordic countries all have a fundamentally different political constitution than ours. They are all unitary nations without provinces, states or territories. Canada is a federation with powers constitutionally divided between two levels of government.

Social democrats at the head of a unitary state have all policy levers and pulleys close at hand. A single Cabinet runs economic ministries, training, health care, education and welfare. It sets laws to shape and encourage—or not—collective bargaining. It runs capital and credit organizations such as the central bank, public pension funds, development banks and housing market credit agencies. In unitary states, a Cabinet can co-ordinate policies that adopt and adapt the social democratic model. We don’t.
Understanding federalism and getting the alignment right means a federal NDP leader who is constantly bolstering provincial NDP sections and always has something to say that will be well-received in provincial capitals—at least among social democrats, whether in government or opposition.
Such a stance could also support the NDP’s recent and hard-won success in Quebec. A helpful federal partner that encourages the social democratic development of Quebec—rather than blocks it—could provide a pathway to reorient the Quebec left—regardless of language—to the project of Canada, rather than separation.
But what none of the current federal leadership campaigns have talked about—not specifically, anyway—is how clean energy transition and diversification (or another strategy) could help develop an economy based on social partnership and the stability the unitary Nordics have developed.
The point is that to achieve what social democrats hope for, federal New Democrats need to understand and leverage Canada’s federal structure. Water cannot run uphill. Time cannot go backward. And social democracy cannot be implemented from Ottawa.

Creating the social partnership that is the core of social democracy—in the Nordic model, anyway—is a provincial undertaking which can greatly benefit from a strong federal ally. Federal New Democrats need to be social democratic federalists, constantly looking for ways to support provincial social democratic projects in ways that will strengthen social partnerships. It means being powerfully strategic and bold in the places where the opportunities for structural economic change lie.

Social democratic federalism would not only politically align the federal party and provincial sections while setting out a path to social democracy. It may also create an enduring bond among progressives in Quebec and across Canada through an attractive and practical alternative to both separatism and neo-liberalism. It’s time to look with clear eyes about how social democrats make change. Our federal constitution has been a brake on success. But perhaps, with the right strategy, it can become an engine for change.
It's certainly fair to note the difficulties in promising federal action in areas where provinces have both the ability and the inclination to reject it. But it's also worth pointing out (as Parkin does) that Canada's most valued social programs are already the product of cooperation between the federal and provincial governments - and recognizing how jurisdictional barriers have been and can be overcome.

Parkin mentions partisanship as an issue, with particular reference to Kathleen Wynne's choice to thumb her nose at the NDP's 2015 child care plan. But while that may serve as an unfortunate example, it would also figure to rule out the type of ambition which the NDP should be seeking to support.

After all, if the threshold for building a national program is to have one party in power in all provinces at once such as to completely align federal and provincial interests, then it's going to be awfully difficult to make the case that change for the better is ever feasible. And indeed, the Libs themselves would surely be thrilled to operate based on that principle - pointing to the fact that a few provinces have yet to elect NDP governments, and thus claiming that they're the only party which can ever hope to achieve national progress (while glossing over their disinclination to do so).

Moreover, leaving political calculations aside, there's strong evidence to suggest the federal government can be both powerful and opportunistic in shaping provincial decisions - and there's also room for it to act on its own toward many of the points raised by Parkin.

Remember that it was just last year that negotiations broke down between Ottawa and the provinces as a group on health care funding. Within two months, most provinces and territories had accepted virtually all of the federal government's terms. And the final holdout gave in last month, as the pressure to accept incremental funding increases outweighed any disagreement over either the form or content of the federal government's demands.

Few provincial governments would figure to have done anything of the sort in responding to party promises during a federal election campaign: after all, then they'd be in a position to either demand more, or benefit their own party by holding out. But the situation changes when immediate funding is at stake - and so an elected government is in a much better position to actually shape the terms of provincial action.

Of course, that shouldn't be the preferred means of developing national policy. And on the opportunism side, there's plenty of room for the federal government to merely take up the invitations of the body which already pursues change based on the consensus of the provinces.

The provinces' original desire to discuss health care at a common table serves as one prime example as to where a federal government looking for coast-to-coast-to-coast cooperation on a key issue could have found a receptive audience. The Council of the Federation has long been pushing for pharmacare, and has expressed consensus support for improved primary care and seniors' care among other steps toward a healthier Canada. And of course the provinces have already signed on to child care programs which have been limited only by the federal Libs' cynicism and stinginess.

As a result, there's little reason for concern that significant improvements in Canada's social structure couldn't be brought about with the provinces' agreement.

Finally, while the federal government may lack the ability to set up a full bureaucracy to administer all aspects of economic policy, it surely has the authority to set up or manage exactly the "capital or credit organizations" discussed by Parkin. Moreover, it can also establish both public enterprises of its own to act directly where it sees a benefit in doing so, and coordinating bodies to equalize and stabilize economic decision-making across levels of government.

To be clear, Parkin is right in arguing that the NDP needs to be conscious of the limits of federal jurisdiction, and plan its mix of immediate proposals and future plans accordingly. But we shouldn't use federalism as an excuse to shy away from discussing the types of social and economic structures needed to support a more fair society.

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