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Speech - Fixing Canada: The Political Challenge
Maxime Bernier, Leader of the People’s Party of Canada
Red Deer, November 16, 2019
Good day everyone. Thank you very much Danny for inviting me to this very interesting and important conference for the future of our country.
There are two nicknames that people have given me over the years: Mad Max, and the Albertan from Quebec. It would seem very appropriate, in a situation like the one we have today, to merge them. I could become the Mad Albertan from Quebec!
Like you, yes, I am mad about the state of Canadian politics.
I am mad about Liberal arrogance. About their policies that are dividing us.
Many of the speakers since yesterday have identified specific problems that afflict our country and that explain the rise of separatist sentiment in the West. Before I address the political challenge of fixing Canada, which is the topic of my presentation, let me give you my big picture perspective on why we are in this situation.
A nation must be based on a sense of belonging, of participating in a common project, sharing the same values and interests.
Canada has the second largest landmass in the world after Russia. We are not ethnically or linguistically homogeneous. We have very diverse regional cultures.
And yet our predecessors understood that despite our many differences, we had common values and interests that justified sticking together. That’s why they created federal institutions to govern the British North American colonies, as opposed to a unitary state.
It’s been quite a success if you look at it from a global historical perspective. We have been for a century and a half one of the most peaceful, stable and prosperous countries in the world.
But that doesn’t mean everything has been perfect, otherwise we would not be here today. And to me, the reason is obvious: It’s because we have strayed from our balanced Constitution and its division of powers. Because the federal government, especially since the 1970s, never stopped growing.
Most of us here are small-c conservatives. We believe in smaller government because it guarantees more individual freedom, more wealth creation, more efficient services. We oppose big government because it makes us less free and less prosperous.
But in a federal country, the excessive growth of government has another negative consequence. It distorts federalism. It creates tensions and even more divisions.
Nationalism and the Growth of Government
Until the 1970s, Canada had always had a relatively modest government, just like the United States. To distinguish Canada from the US, Canadian nationalists – and by that I mean mostly the Trudeau Liberals and the cultural and intellectual Left – invented the myth of an intrinsically social-democratic Canada, with its extensive welfare state, its interventionist economic policies, and its cultural protectionism.
The 1970s and early 1980s were the era of big deficits and growing debt. The era of increased federal intervention in health care and education. The era of the National Energy Program. The era of centralisation and nationalisation. The era when the federal government was growing like wildfire.
Under Pierre Trudeau, total government spending went from $13 billion to $109 billion, and from 17% of GDP to 24%. Our national debt went from 25% of GDP in 1968 to 43% in 1984.
It was also the era when separatism became mainstream in both Quebec and Alberta. The PQ became the official opposition in 1970, formed the government in 1976 and held its first referendum in 1980. And Albertans first elected a separatist in a provincial election in 1982.
In a large and diverse federation like Canada, the fastest way to breed resentment and disunity is to have a big central government intervening in provincial affairs, being perceived as favouring the interests of some regions against those of others, and unfairly redistributing wealth from some regions to others.
Separatism in Quebec, and discontent in the West, grew fastest during the era of Pierre Trudeau, as a reaction against central government activism. And it is no coincidence if it is once again growing under a government headed by his son, who shares his vision.
The current Trudeau government has added $70 billion to our national debt and plans to add $90 billion more in the next four years. These deficits should not be happening in a period of economic growth. They only serve to grow the size of government and buy votes with borrowed money.
It is planning to once again use its so-called spending power to intervene in provincial jurisdictions with the creation of a national pharmacare program, a national daycare program, and with more money to local infrastructures and housing, which are provincial responsibilities.
It is continuing to redistribute money from richer to poorer provinces, to the tune of $20 billion this year, with an equalization program that keeps growing despite the inequities it creates.
In addition to imposing a carbon tax, it is doing everything it can to slow down the growth of the oil and gas industry and make the economic situation in this region even worse.
Should the West copy Quebec?
There is one big misunderstanding about the Quebec situation that needs to be cleared. Many people here in the West believe they should take example from Quebec. They think that Quebec’s experience with separatism has brought benefits to the province. That Quebec always gets what it wants because of this separatist threat.
But that’s not how I see it.
We have a Constitution that leaves a lot of autonomy to provinces. If we respected the division of powers prescribed by our Constitution, Canada would be a lot less centralized than it is today. And the federal government would be much smaller.
However, between the two extreme options of separatism and a centralized federation, the view of a decentralized federation with more autonomous provinces never became a reality, even though it is the one favoured by a majority of Quebecers.
Asking our partners in Ottawa and in the other provinces that we cease to violate our Constitution should be the easiest position to defend. But it was always badly defended.
For 50 years, successive Quebec governments have weakened it by constantly asking for special privileges. They demanded that Quebec be recognized as a distinct society and that this distinction serve to interpret the Constitution; that Quebec get more seats in Parliament than what its demographic weight warranted; that only Quebec get a veto on constitutional changes. And these demands were made with a knife at the throat: you better say yes or else we separate.
Moreover, Quebec’s constitutional demands were coupled with demands for more money, more transfers, more equalization payments, to feed its big provincial government. This contradicted the wish for more autonomy.
Quebec has remained financially dependent on the rest of Canada. The current budget surplus of the Quebec government doesn’t mean that the province has suddenly become rich. Quebecers are still poorer than Westerners and Ontarians. Quebec has one of the biggest and most interventionist governments in North America, and one of the heaviest fiscal burdens. It still has a large accumulated debt.
The moral authority that Quebec politicians could have mustered by asking for the Constitution to be respected was repeatedly compromised by these unrealistic demands.
After two referenda that ended in defeat for separatist forces, Quebec has no negotiation power anymore. A majority of Quebecers don’t want to separate. Despite the rebirth of the Bloc, nobody believes a referendum could be won any time soon. And we are once again facing a centralizing government in Ottawa that wants to spend more and intervene more in provincial jurisdictions. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again, as in the movie.
There are many Canadians in every region of the country who share the vision of a society less dominated by big government in Ottawa, of a less centralized federation. Especially here in the West. Quebecers who want more autonomy for Quebec should have allied with them instead of making unrealistic demands on Ottawa and the rest of the country.
My recommendation is the same for Westerners. You must find allies in Quebec and elsewhere if you want to bring about change at the federal level.
Don’t focus on the arrogant statements made by the Bloc leader. He only represents a minority of Quebecers.
In 2012, only 1% of Quebec’s oil came from Western Canada. Today, it’s 44%. The Quebec government supports Alberta in its Supreme Court challenge against Ottawa’s carbon tax.
Many people in Quebec and in the Maritime provinces are not happy about being poor provinces that depend on equalization. They understand it’s a poverty trap. They would prefer policies that bring economic growth and prosperity.
We created the People’s Party to give a voice to these people across the country who want change and are willing to work together to bring it about.
I understand why many of are you angry at Ottawa, Quebec and the rest of the country. But you won’t be able to change this country if all you do is threaten to leave when things get really bad like now. And support the status quo the rest of the time.
I hear people saying: This time, we really mean it. Either there are real changes or we will separate. After the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, polls were showing a majority of Quebecers were contemplating separation. The No side still won in 1995. And nothing changed. Ottawa did not say yes to Quebec’s demands.
You could spend several decades trying to organize a separatist movement. It’s a huge undertaking. I know people who have spent most of their lives fighting for Quebec to become independent.
Moreover, if your logic is: Let’s create a separatist movement like Quebec to exert pressure on Ottawa, even though we don’t really want to separate, you’re not going to go very far.
The threat has to be credible to work. A large minority of Quebecers don’t feel Canadian at all. Jacques Parizeau really wanted to create a new country, not to reform Canada. But I have the impression that there are very few Westerners who don’t feel Canadian and who really want to separate. Their first choice is always to fix Canada.
Such a weak threat will probably not increase the bargaining power of the West against Ottawa. And if separatism failed to achieve much that was beneficial in Quebec despite a more credible threat, imagine what it will accomplish here.
What it will create for sure is a lot of division and resentment among Westerners. You will likely find yourself in a very negative political dynamic. One based on failed attempts to blackmail Ottawa, internal divisions, and resentment against the rest of the country. Just like in Quebec.
There are ways for Alberta to become more autonomous in some areas, like Quebec. Alberta could have its own police force, its own revenue agency, its own pension plan. I support this.
Alberta could also have specific agreements on shared jurisdictions with Ottawa like manpower training and selection of immigrants, like Quebec. The panel appointed by Premier Kenney will look at these proposals. The reason only Quebec got these special arrangements is not because of separatist blackmail. It’s because other provinces were not interested and never asked for it.
Quebec always defended its provincial autonomy. You can do the same.
But this won’t bring new pipelines or a reform of the equalization program. It won’t stop the federal government from intruding even more in health care, education and other provincial jurisdictions. It won’t bring about a streamlined federal government that spends less, doesn’t increase our national debt, and focuses on national problems.
These changes need to be made at the federal level.
The Reform Party’s failed experiment
Thirty years ago, a new party, the Reform Party, offered specific measures to decentralize the federation and reduce the size of the central government. I read the Reform Party Blue Book, which was the party program, and other documents from that time. Many of these solutions are very similar to what I have been talking about and what the People’s Party proposes in its platform.
The Reform Party became the official opposition in 1997. But it did not successfully transition from a Western protest party to a national party. It never managed to make any inroad in Quebec, where it was widely perceived as anti-Quebec and anti-French. Many people who were attracted to its policies in Ontario and in the Atlantic provinces did not vote for it because they saw it as a regional Western party.
I have great respect and admiration for what Mr. Manning has done, but unfortunately, he never became fluent in French and could not speak directly to Quebecers to counter this negative perception and explain how Reform policies could be advantageous to Quebec.
This is unfortunate because I think Reform could have had a chance to grow even more and eventually form government if it had emphasized its small-government and decentralizing policies in both official languages, in a way that could appeal to conservatives in all regions of the country.
However, even in opposition, it was influential enough to push the Chrétien government to adopt major reforms, slash bureaucracy and reduce spending in real terms, get rid of the deficit, and start reducing the debt. I would say the Chrétien government was the most fiscally conservative government of the past half century in Canada. Reform could have had a major influence on Canada’s governance if it had remained a truly principled small-c conservative and decentralist party, whether or not it formed government.
The Reform experiment proved that bold and consistent policies don’t need to be watered down to appeal to a substantial portion of Canadian voters. We can only imagine what may have happened it if had continued to consolidate its gains, and made a more systematic effort to appeal to Quebecers and Easterners.
Instead, Reform ended up merging with the old Progressive Conservative Party and diluting its bold policies. It became more centrist. And when the new Conservative Party formed government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it did not implement any of the bold Reform policies.
I am proud of having been a minister in this government and of what we achieved. But let’s be frank. The Harper government increased equalization payments. It increased transfer payments for health care. It continued to subsidize and bail out businesses. It did not curtail the size of government in any meaningful way.
It was a good manager of a big government. What we need to solve our unity problems and make our federation work better is a good manager of a smaller, much less intrusive and interventionist government. One that respects our Constitution.
That’s why we are here discussing this today. The Reform Party experiment failed. Nothing significant has changed. The relentless march of big government has resumed with Justin Trudeau. And we are faced with the same political challenges to fix Canada.
So what are your options now, here in Western Canada?
First is the Wexit option. I have explained why I believe it’s not the right one. Westerners should avoid repeating the mistakes Quebecers made.
Then there is the option of the centrist, pragmatic, Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer, or another leader with even weaker principles. Westerners massively supported this party last month. It got them nowhere.
Even if Andrew Scheer had won the election, not much would have changed. Scheer’s only program was to buy votes. He was promising more money for health care and would not have ended federal intrusions. He would not have reformed equalization. He would not have used the Constitution to approve pipelines. He would have adopted some kind of price on carbon and would have spent more money to fight climate change. He would have continued to spend almost as much as the Liberals, and was planning deficits for many more years.
And I’m not even talking about immigration, free speech, and all the other issues where the Conservatives essentially adopted the Liberal position.
I know, I know, the election campaign is over! But it’s important to repeat all of this.
And now that the Conservatives have lost, what do you hear? Calls from all sides for the party to become even more centrist and pragmatic. To reconcile itself with endless deficits. To become more politically correct. To have a more ambitious climate change plan. To have a more developed health care and social vision, which simply means to spend more and intervene more in provincial jurisdictions.
Many of you in this room voted for the Conservatives. I’m sorry to have to break the news to you, but if the Conservative Party takes this ultra-centrist route, as is very likely, you’re screwed! Even if they get elected next time, they won’t have any mandate for change. They will be hostage to all the interest groups whose support they will have bought with promises. Think dairy cartel.
It will be Groundhog Day all over again. They may not even be good managers of a big government.
Now, it may be a bit presumptuous of me to say this after last month’s election results, but I still believe that the only option to fix Canada is the one offered by a principled party willing to propose bold reforms, like the People’s Party. A national party that doesn’t pit one region of the country against another, but rather sells these reforms as good for all Canadians.
The People’s Party offers you a way out of the bad policies that feed Western alienation. The People’s Party would take away the reasons to flirt with separation.
I was the only federal leader who was willing to use the Constitution to approve pipelines, and I said it even when speaking in French, in Quebec.
The only federal leader who rejected the Paris Accord and would not impose any new tax or regulation.
The only federal leader who would make equalization less generous. And make it fair for every province.
The only federal leader who will strongly promote provincial autonomy and respect provincial jurisdictions.
It’s all contained in our four principles: Freedom, Responsibility, Fairness and Respect.
It may not be realistic in the short term. Especially with our first-past-the-post system that discourages new national parties with no concentrated regional base. But I don’t see any other solution in the longer term.
Canada is becoming an increasingly divided and dysfunctional country, and the re-election of the Liberals will make things even worse.
The Left has been pushing its radical ideas for decades. And guess what? What sounded radical decades ago is now the new orthodoxy. They keep pushing for more. They never back down. They’re always on the offensive.
They adopt new programs that become untouchable. They promise the moon to everyone and pay for it with borrowed money. And then getting rid of these programs and deficits become unthinkable. Instead of fighting this trend and offering a principled alternative, Conservatives move even more to the left.
We must stop compromising. We must keep defending our ideas. Even if it means we’re not mainstream enough in today’s political culture to form a government.
Our first aim should be to become an intransigent minority that’s big enough to force everyone to debate its proposals. And then big enough to pull the political centre of gravity to our side, like the Reform Party did. And continue to do so without diluting our ideas for short-term electoral gains, as the Reform Party did when it finally merged with the Progressive Conservatives.
Or else, another generation will still be discussing the same problems another 25 years from now.
That’s the political challenge we have to fix Canada.
The choice is ours.
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