Column

Ralph Klein's secret national unity plan

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman June 16 1997
Column

Ralph Klein's secret national unity plan

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman June 16 1997

Ralph Klein's secret national unity plan

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

Nobody is saying much for publication, but there’s something highly significant stirring in the political weeds. With Jean Chrétien deprived of his power to act decisively by the voters on June 2, the Liberals will have their hands full trying to retain power, leaving little energy for devising any imaginative strategy to deal with national unity.

This comes at a time when the countdown to Quebec’s next referendum has started, with a realistic possibility that Lucien Bouchard will seize the moment of Ottawa’s vulnerability to call a snap election this fall. If he wins, as expected, he would then be free to call another referendum before Ottawa had the wit or the time to organize itself.

It is precisely because such a scenario has become so realistic that Alberta’s Ralph Klein feels that the national unity file must be taken over by the provincial premiers. According to the whispers, the Alberta politician will be the main instigator and guiding spirit of an initiative that will bring the premiers together to try and head off the looming crisis. Out of their initially informal deliberations, which would later be translated into provincial and federal legislative action, could emerge a revolutionary new split in jurisdictions that would dramatically change the way we are governed.

Backed by Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin, Saskatchewan’s Roy Romanow and New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna, Klein is quietly planning moves that would shatter the national status quo. (Apart from Bouchard, the least enthusiastic supporter of the idea is Ontario’s Mike Harris, who seems to have opted out of any involvement in his country’s—as opposed to his province’s—future.)

The Klein initiative, if it goes ahead as planned, would eventually include just about every fundamental reform that can be quickly implemented, short of attempting another constitutional merry-goround. The Alberta premier, who has just recently been endowed with a strong mandate from his electors, feels he must fill the empty space created by the June 2 federal election. Whether or not this is his opening gambit to make a career move onto the national stage is not clear. His friends claim that he wants to be prime minister; his wife, Colleen, says no way is she leaving Alberta.

The first priority of the Klein strategy is to eliminate the many costly areas of jurisdictional overlap between the feds and the provinces. Tom d’Aquino, who heads the Ottawa-based Business Council on National Issues, recently suggested that the criteria for which government should do what ought to be common sense: ‘What programs and services can be delivered most effectively by the appropriate level of government in the most efficient way,

The initiative would eliminate many costly areas of jurisdictional overlap between Ottawa and the provinces

and at the lowest cost to taxpayers?” If this rule is followed, he points out, Ottawa would abandon all activity in such areas of provincial jurisdiction as tourism, housing, environment and regional development.

These suggestions seem sound enough, but such disentanglement would be no simple matter. Who, for example, would promote travel to Canada or speak for the nation at international gatherings? Other shared jurisdictions such as environmental protection, industrial development, agriculture and fisheries must also be reorganized.

The pattern that Klein and his fellow collaborators will point to is Manpower Minister Pierre Pettigrew’s successful negotiations to transfer manpower training to the provinces. That achievement was an overdue streamlining of government responsibilities and accountability.

By advocating—and eventually implementing—a much-needed shakeup of powers, Klein and his activist premiers would be sending a signal to Quebec voters. It would show Quebecers that they don’t have to rely on a paralyzed Jean Chrétien to demonstrate that Canada outside Quebec also wants to alter the status quo. The soft Quebec nationalists, who voted Liberal and Conservative earlier this month, must also be given a reason for opposing Bouchard’s independence crusade.

Klein himself hasn’t said much on national issues. But at least he has never attacked the idea of granting Quebec “distinct society” status. In the current context of western Canadian thought, that means he can be classified as an enthusiastic moderate. “I can’t articulate what distinct society means,” he said during the recent election campaign. “If it simply means to preserve and protect what is already there in terms of tradition, language and law—well, I think Albertans might be willing to accept that.”

When Klein visited Montreal in February, 1996, a Québécois activist came up to him while he was having lunch at a restaurant and explained that her people just wanted to be “recognized and protected.” Gerald Leblanc of La Presse reported this innocent incident, noting that Klein was “so impressed by this little statement, that he left feeling that he finally understood Quebec.” That’s grasping at feeble straws, but Klein does strongly support the notion that the key to national unity is a massive transfer of power from Ottawa to the provinces, and he is about to make a significant move to make it happen.

This “rebalancing agenda,” as it’s known among the insiders discussing the pros and cons of the Klein initiative, is an idea whose time is overdue. With a vacuum at the centre, the regions must act to save the country. And Klein, a strong man with a powerful mandate, is the ideal agent of change.

Let the games begin.