Federalism, Decentralization, and Stephen Harper

Shortly before Christmas, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did something extraordinary. He had a conversation with reporters. And when the conversation turned to the provinces, health care, and the threat of spiralling costs, he did something even more surprising.

He said he didn’t know what the answer is.

Let’s pause and look at that moment of humility, reported by Jane Taber in The Globe and Mail, because it’s key to understanding Stephen Harper’s federalism.

Long before he became prime minister, Harper was a decentralist: The federal government should do what only federal governments could. National defence, foreign affairs, that sort of thing. Otherwise, decisions should be made in the provinces.

A standard argument for this sort of federalism is that it allows diverse regions to express their distinctive political cultures within a single nation. Another is that it divides power so no faction or individual can govern in a high-handed fashion. A third holds that lower-level governments are closer to people, possess local knowledge, and are thus better able to craft policies that work. Finally – and most importantly for present purposes – there is experimentation.

When the federal government makes a decision about policy and implements it, there’s nothing to compare the results to so it’s hard to determine if the policy works well or if there are other policies that would work better. But if a policy is left to the provinces, there will be 10 governments making 10 decisions. Which may result in 10 different policies. And 10 different outcomes which can be compared to determine which policy works best.

In effect, the federation becomes a laboratory for policy experiments.

The value of this sort of experimentation cannot be overstated. Consider criminology.

Under the American constitution, criminal law is the responsibility of the states. As a result, there is not one criminal justice system in the United States. There are 50. (Plus a federal system which is substantially different). These 50 different systems routinely pass different laws. Which produce different results. Which social scientists compare to determine what works and what doesn’t.

The importance of this American experimentation cannot be overstated. It’s the source of a huge portion of what criminologists know about crime policy. You might even say criminology as we know it wouldn’t exist if criminologists didn’t have the American laboratory to work in.

But notice the attitude that leads to experimentation. It is humility.

If you’re sure you know what the best policy is, you don’t need to experiment. You already know the answer. And you really don’t want responsibility for the policy to be decentralized because it’s much easier and more efficient to get one government to implement the correct policy everywhere than it is to get 10 to do it across the country.

Only when you accept that you don’t know everything does experimentation make sense. And only then is the case for decentralization strongest.

So the prime minister’s moment of humility wasn’t only admirable. It was significant. In fact, it helps explain the health deal he surprised the premiers with in December.

Paul Martin’s health accord gave the provinces generous funding in exchange for a series of conditions, which effectively meant the federal government took a more active role in the delivery of health care. Or it would have if the Conservatives hadn’t taken power and declined to enforce Martin’s conditions.

By contrast, Harper’s health deal gives the provinces modestly less generous funding with no strings attached, which means the federal government will have no role in the delivery of health care beyond funding (and enforcing the very broad parameters – universality, portability, etc. – of the Canada Health Act).

It’s classic decentralization. The prime minister admits he isn’t omniscient and gives the provinces maximum freedom to chart their own course on health care policy. Various policies are implemented. Results are compared and contrasted. Lessons are learned. Everybody benefits.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of this approach. If I had shiny gold stars to give, I’d give one to Stephen Harper. And another for saying he doesn’t know what the answer is.

Politicians seldom do that. They should. Often. I’d recommend they say it to the mirror each morning after gargling.

But there’s something striking about all this. Humility? Relinquishing control? These are not concepts routinely associated with Stephen Harper.

The prime minister inherited a radically centralized government and centralized it further. As for humility, look at his crime policies. Criminologists say they will do very little good at great expense. They base that conclusion on the results of countless experiments with similar policies in the great American laboratory. But the prime minister only scoffs. He doesn’t care about experiments and evidence. He has all the answers.

If I were to pick two words that best sum up Stephen Harper’s approach to governance, they would be “hubris” and “controlling.” So what accounts for this uncharacteristic modesty?

The standard answer is “the constitution.” It gives authority over health care to the provinces and the prime minister – unlike certain villainous Liberals before him – is simply respecting the division of powers.

As he always said he would. “Open federalism,” he used to call it.

But that explanation sits awkwardly alongside the prime minister’s plan for a national securities regulator, which was pretty clearly an intrusion on provincial authority – a fact confirmed by a unanimous Supreme Court three days after the prime minister made his hands-off announcement on health care.

So how can these contradictions be reconciled? What is Stephen Harper’s federalism? That’s my next column.