Thursday, November 12, 2020

On jurisdictional barriers

Scott Gilmore rightly points out the need for a far more clear national response to COVID-19. But I'd think we can expand on the point with reference to a couple of other familiar jurisdictional disputes - even as those also highlight which provincial governments need to be called out as obstructing effective federalism.

First, we can treat the pandemic as reflecting a Canada-wide version of the type of jurisdictional finger-pointing which finally gave rise to Jordan's principle

In the case of First Nations children, the federal government eventually (if far too late) recognized that the appropriate sequence of action was to ensure that necessary services weren't denied to children simply because provincial and federal governments disagreed as to who might be responsible to pay for them. And there shouldn't be any doubt that's the fairest way to approach individual requests for service.

But the need is all the more compelling when the dispute involves measures to control the spread of a highly contagious virus. In the case of COVID-19, the entire country stands to lose out from insufficient public protection. And as Gilmore notes, the proper response from the federal government should be to ensure standards are in place, not to step aside and let irresponsible premiers choose death for their provinces.

That said, I'd think there is room for a bit more flexibility than would be required in Gilmore's preference to simply impose national standards. And that's where we can draw an analogy to climate change policy - both in what can be done, and what we should avoid.

In principle, the federal government could establish national standards while allowing provinces to apply their own plans - as long as those are equally effective in controlling COVID-19, and compatible with the national system. In that respect, if there are legitimate differences between provinces as to the restrictions which are seen as appropriate or necessary, those can be considered and given effect through an evidence-based review process.

Of course, the problem is that the petroprovinces have spent years blustering against exactly that type of system when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions; they've shrieked endlessly about the federal carbon tax, while refusing to implement equivalent reductions through any other means when that option has always been available to avoid the application of the federal tax.

COVID-19 might then serve as a immediate and vivid example of the problems with the denialist argument against the carbon tax. The melodramatic pushback against even minimal climate action with a readily-available opt-out provision may well have shaped the federal government's choices in response to what seems to be incontrovertibly considered an emergency beyond the scope of a single jurisdiction. 

But if that's the case, we should be looking to the federal government to push back even harder when the risk of inaction is so immediate, not to accept the argument as applied to a fast-moving calamity. And if the federal government can succeed in controlling the spread of COVID-19 where Jason Kenney, Scott Moe, Brian Pallister and Doug Ford are obviously failing, that should lay the groundwork for more effective national action elsewhere as well.

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