Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Stephen Harper's Ottawa-Knows-Best Policy

There's a store in my neighbourhood. It's got all sorts of stuff. And it doesn't charge me for most of what I buy. Really. I can get whatever I want and most of the bill is divided up and sent to my 10 neighbours. They have to pay, even if they think that what I buy is junk.

It's a sweet deal. For me.

This - in case you didn't recognize it - is how Canada's Constitution apportions responsibility for criminal justice: The federal government decides what the criminal laws will be and the provinces pay to enforce them. Of course there is lots of overlap and complication, particularly with incarceration - those awaiting trial and lesser offenders go to provincial jails while major offenders are sent to federal prisons - but in general the feds can get anything they want and the provinces get stuck with the bill.

It's a sweet deal. If you're the federal government.

This week, at least five provincial governments, starting with Quebec and Ontario, said they will refuse to pay the increased costs created by the mandatory minimum sentences and other "tough on crime" measures in the federal government's omnibus crime bill. No one really knows what those costs are but they are certainly significant.

This could get very nasty, with unforeseeable implications for federalism.

But the interesting question here isn't why this is happening. That's obvious. The feds are on a shopping spree the provinces have to pay for. Nothing could be clearer.

No, the interesting question is why this didn't happen before.

The answer lies in the attitude of the federal government, which has traditionally exercised its authority over criminal law with restraint. The feds worked with the provinces. They consulted. They did not pass laws dramatically out of line with what the provinces considered to be good policy.

In the early years of Pierre Trudeau's government, for example, a bill to replace antiquated young offender legislation generated considerable opposition from the provinces. So Trudeau let it die.

This is not to say there haven't been substantial disagreements. In the 1990s, Ontario's Progressive Conservative government pushed the Chr├ętien government to pass the sort of "tough-on-crime" measures the Harper Conservatives are now implementing. The feds refused. That annoyed Ontario but it didn't cost the province a big bag of money. So there was no showdown.

Things are different today. We have a prime minister who utterly dominates Parliament and the government. Who prefers orders and bullying to discussion and compromise. Who has used crime as a political wedge to a far greater extent than any federal leader in history.

Some provinces - notably in the West - support the prime minister's policies, while others - notably Ontario and Quebec - think they're wrong-headed.

But none of the provinces likes being handed a bill for policies they had no say in. The result may be a classic fiasco of federalism.

And remember that the province which is most opposed to the federal government's crime policies, and is apparently organizing the provincial opposition, is Quebec. For Quebec, it's not merely about money and public policy. The animating spirit of Quebec's justice system - its youth system in particular - is essentially the opposite of Stephen Harper's keep-hittingthem-until-they-behave approach. Quebecers are proud of that. And rightly so, since it has produced good results.

If this fight gets ugly, it could easily be portrayed as federalism smothering the unique political culture of Quebec. We all know who that would benefit.

And remember who is presiding over this proto-fiasco. Stephen Harper. The man who devoted most of his political life to a few simple propositions. One of them was decentralization.

Canada is a federation, he said, not a unitary state. The federal government should only do what must be done centrally. Otherwise, decision-making power should be devolved, to the provinces, and even the cities, which would produce policies that "better reflect local economies and local desires," as Harper wrote in a 2001 oped. This would also allow different policies to be implemented in different places, so we could see which policies worked and which didn't. Everyone would learn from this sort of experimentation. And we'd all be better off.

The American constitution gives authority over criminal law to the states but nothing that extreme is needed to inject a little decentralization into the Canadian framework. The feds can simply listen to the provinces and take their views seriously. And they can be flexible when needed - as the federal Liberal government was when it exempted Vancouver public health authorities from drug laws so they could open Insite, a safe-injection facility, in response to the extraordinary circumstances in Vancouver's downtown eastside.

But since becoming prime minister, Stephen Harper has done none of that. Instead, he's been a centralizer, an Ottawa-knows-best bully, more Trudeau than Trudeau.

And he may finally pay a price.