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Speech - To Save Canada, Imperial Federalism Must End
Maxime Bernier, Leader of the People’s Party of Canada
Alberta, March 5 2021
I want to thank my friend Danny for inviting me to his conference again this year.
In this day and age, when you can be accused of believing conspiracy theories as soon as you say something mildly controversial, it’s comforting to find myself among a group of real conspirators! People who are actually plotting against Ottawa!
The last time I was at this conference, I talked about Quebec’s expensive and ultimately futile flirt with separatism between the 1960s and the 1990s. How it contaminated and paralyzed political debates in the province for decades. How it overshadowed more important debates like health care reform or excessive taxes and government intervention in the economy.
I argued that Albertans should not follow Quebec’s example, that you would be wasting your energy, with probably similar results.
Obviously, many of you have not been following my advice!
I’ve been talking with some of our own former PPC candidates here in Alberta who joined the provincial Wildrose Independence Party. They have legitimate arguments for supporting secession. I understand their concerns and motivation.
We can all agree on one thing: Canada is becoming more dysfunctional every year.
The situation is getting worse faster under Justin Trudeau for sure. As it did when his father was prime minister.
But the Trudeau family is not responsible for everything that’s going wrong in Canada.
There are structural problems with our institutions, with the way our federation is being governed, and with democracy itself. These problems guarantee that things will continue to get worse.
GOVERNMENTS ARE GROWING
Let me talk a little bit about general political trends before I address the issue of federalism.
As many historians and political philosophers have noted, all governments have a tendency to grow. They use every justification to increase their power, especially during times of crisis.
We’ve seen it during the past year. The pandemic has provided an ideal opportunity for governments to infringe upon our basic fundamental rights and freedoms, and impose draconian measures, under the pretext of protecting us from a virus. We will come out of this crisis with governments larger and more intrusive than ever before.
During the 20th century, we managed to defeat the two most destructive ideologies advocating collectivism and state tyranny: communism and fascism. But despite this, the size of government inexorably continued to grow in the victorious liberal democratic countries.
There has been a perversion of the meaning of democracy itself. In the 18th and 19th centuries, democrats fought for the equality of all citizens under the law, and their right to govern themselves, against the despotic power of kings and small cliques of aristocrats.
But conservatives and classical liberals were united in the belief that power had to be limited. They adopted constitutions that clearly outlined the powers of governments, and the rights and freedoms of citizens that could not be infringed upon.
Governments were not meant to decide everything. In most areas of their lives, citizens could govern themselves, within a free society and a free economy. Governments set basic rules, and civil society could function autonomously within this framework.
If you read the essays and speeches of that time, you clearly see that they were afraid that democracy could degenerate into a tyranny of the majority.
Unfortunately, that’s where we are heading. It’s not even technically a tyranny of the majority. It’s the tyranny of a large enough minority to keep control of the levers of power. Justin Trudeau has been acting exactly like some banana republic dictator even though he has a minority government.
More and more, democracy means whatever a government can get away with. If a government adopts a policy that is approved, or not disapproved, by enough people to get it elected or re-elected, then it’s considered democratic. Even if that policy contradicts the Constitution, the rule of law, parliamentary precedents, the formal equality of all citizens, and basic rights and freedoms.
We now have government by polling. That’s why governments have huge communications budgets, or we should say propaganda budgets, in order to manipulate public opinion and manufacture the minimal democratic legitimacy that they need.
We are losing our basic rights and freedoms at a rapid pace. Our governments are becoming tyrannical. Identity politics is dividing us into warring tribes. The universalist classical liberal values that underpin Western civilization are fast eroding. And we have competitors like China, who have no use for these values. Their military and economic might are rapidly rising.
I believe that confronting these trends is the biggest challenge of our time. I am here today to discuss federalism in Canada, and not these fundamental issues. But I don’t think we can understand our national unity problems unless we put them in this larger perspective.
In a federation, the growth of government means the growth of all levels of government. And we’ve had that in Canada of course. Provincial governments are bigger and more interventionist than ever.
But it also means increasing centralization in the national government, regardless of what the Constitution says about the division of powers.
The objective of the 1867 Act was not to subordinate provincial governments to a central authority. But rather to have sovereign provinces within the limits of their powers, dealing with local matters that directly affected citizens. And a sovereign federal government within the limits of its own powers, dealing with matters of general national interest.
Ottawa took on more responsibilities throughout the 20th century, like every other developed country. But until the 1970s, we still had a relatively modest government, just like the United States.
The centralizing trend accelerated under Pierre Trudeau. 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.
It was also the era when separatism became mainstream in both Quebec and Alberta. The Parti Quebecois became Quebec’s official opposition in 1970, formed the government in 1976 and held its first referendum on secession 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, or unfairly redistributing wealth from some regions to others.
These structural problems are present in all federal unions.
The European mega-state has become a bureaucratic mammoth that regulates everything in a totally undemocratic fashion. It is siphoning off wealth from Germany and other northern countries to bail out Greece, Italy and Spain. How could a democracy function in such a large and diverse entity anyway?
The country that has always been most skeptical of the European project, the UK, recently left it. I would not bet on the European Union surviving many more decades in its present form.
Even in the US, there is renewed discussion of the benefits of secessionism. The country is so divided between the blue and red states, there is such polarization between the right and the left, that some say it would be better if it split into at least two countries.
And there too, Washington has for decades been growing and intervening more and more in people’s lives, despite what the Constitution says. Not only is Washington getting bigger, but power is increasingly concentrated in the office of the president.
What we have in Ottawa, Washington and Brussels are not federal governments. They are imperial governments. We don’t have true federalism anymore, with a clear division of powers. We have imperial federalism.
So, as conservatives, classical liberals or libertarians, we have several problems to solve, or tendencies to counter: governments that keep growing; a democracy that degenerates into the tyranny of the majority or of a large controlling minority; and finally, a federal government that centralizes power.
I know what many of you are thinking. That tyrannical majority or controlling minority is the large population centres of Quebec and Ontario. The Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto axis that is big enough to elect and control federal governments. The Laurentian elite.
Because our population is unevenly distributed across the country and concentrated in this area, a federal government mostly needs to appeal to the voters there and ignore the other regions of the country where it has little support, like Alberta.
I think that’s a good description of the Liberal Party strategy!
This uneven distribution of population, and its consequences on federal politics, is a problem that exists in all federations.
One solution that has been part of the political debates for decades here in Western Canada, since the days of the Reform Party, is the Triple-E Senate. The Maverick Party proposes it today as an alternative to separation.
I don’t support a Triple-E Senate solution, for several reasons.
This is an American solution. It has not prevented the centralization of power and the growth of government in Washington. There is even less chance it would work here.
First of all, we would need a constitutional amendment, and you know how difficult that is. There is no way it would ever be accepted by Quebec.
One of the central issues in Quebec politics since the British conquest is the fear of becoming a smaller minority in Canada and losing control of its destiny. You in the West don’t want your life to be determined by the Laurentian elite. Quebecers don’t want their lives to be determined by nine English-speaking provinces.
The Quebec government and population will simply never agree to having the same representation and influence as PEI within a more powerful federal institution.
Perhaps you don’t care what Quebecers think. But even from your Western perspective, I fail to see how it would be advantageous.
Even in a Triple-E Senate, the Western provinces would be in a minority. The four Atlantic provinces, which have been for decades the most dependent on federal transfers, would have the same number of seats, about 40% depending on the representation of the Territories, even though they represent only 6% of the population. Their influence would increase dramatically.
Add Quebec and Manitoba, and you get a situation where have-not provinces, whose interest is to receive more transfers from Ottawa, control the Senate despite representing less than half the country’s population.
There is no reason to believe that Western Senators would vote as a block anyway. B.C.’s political culture is very distinct. Even here in Alberta, you had an NDP government not long ago which had the exact same vision of big government that you find in the East. An NDP Senator from Alberta would support national pharmacare, national daycare, and other unconstitutional national programs proposed by the Liberals and NDP in Ottawa.
With a Triple-E Senate, you might change the process of adopting these laws a little bit, but the result will be essentially the same. There is absolutely no reason to believe it would reverse the trend toward imperial federalism. By giving more legitimacy to the federal government, it may on the contrary reinforce it.
Instead of trying to change the way an overbearing and interventionist federal government works to make it more acceptable to the West, you should try to make it less overbearing. You should aim at reforms that are feasible, not waste political capital on one that is unattainable and would not solve anything anyway.
The solution is to radically downsize Ottawa. Most of what’s wrong in this country today originates from Ottawa. We are a huge country with very diverse regional cultures. Instead of having one-size-fits-all policies imposed by Ottawa, we should have autonomous provincial governments that answer the needs and wishes of their citizens.
Ottawa should only take care of national and international issues on which we have common interests. The rest should be left to the provinces.
This means all federal intrusions in provincial jurisdictions such as health care, education, housing and local infrastructures, should end. Ottawa should transfer tax points instead of conditional grants for health care so that provinces are financially autonomous and don’t depend on Ottawa anymore.
We should allow all provinces to take over the management of programs such as provincial police, pensions, manpower training, or immigration selection, like Quebec did.
Provinces must be responsible for the success or failures of their own policies. And of course, we should reduce and reform the equalization program to put an end to the culture of dependency and encourage provinces to adopt policies that favour economic growth.
That’s the program the People’s Party proposes. And if I had to write the question for the upcoming referendum in Alberta, it would be: Do you agree that the federal government should stop all intrusions in provincial jurisdictions? A majority YES would start the ball rolling.
By the way, this radical decentralization was the other major reform of the federation proposed by the Reform Party in the 1990s. If Preston Manning had focused on this instead of the Triple-E Senate, he might have received some support in Quebec.
Who knows, if Manning had taken this road, perhaps he would not have felt the need to merge the Canadian Alliance with the Progressive Conservatives to get more votes in the East, and in so doing bring the Red Tories back to life. Think about that!
Note that in their recent book Moment of Truth: How to Think About Alberta’s Future, Jack Mintz, Ted Morton and Tom Flanagan discuss three options for Alberta: 1. institutional reforms, including the Triple-E Senate, to give it more influence in Ottawa; 2. more autonomy; and 3. separation.
They reject separation. Their preferred choice is institutional reform, but they agree that it’s not possible at this time, and so propose autonomy instead. I share the same conclusion as these distinguished defenders of Western interests. I think that’s why I’m often called “the Albertan from Quebec!”
So, what are your options to vote for at the federal level if you want change from the disastrous Trudeau regime?
First of all, you can vote for… uh, what’s his name again? The guy who won the Conservative leadership race last fall? O’Toole, yes, Erin O’Toole, that’s him!
As much as you may want to get rid of Trudeau, voting for the CPC will change absolutely nothing.
The Conservatives don’t want to solve Canada’s structural problems. They don’t even acknowledge that they exist.
They have nothing to say about our imperial federal regime and our defective democracy.
They have nothing to say about the centralization of power in Ottawa.
They have nothing to say about equalization.
They won’t use the Constitution to build pipelines.
They have nothing to say about identity politics. On the contrary, they’re playing that card just like the other parties!
They support the Paris Accord and carbon pricing. They support lockdowns, massive spending and deficits.
There is very little substantive difference between them and the Liberals.
They’ve accepted the current rules of the game and they’ve reconciled themselves with the dominant ideological trends. And so their only option is to court the voters in Ontario and Quebec with mainstream centre-left policies.
That’s also what they were doing under the previous leader, Andrew uh… Andrew... Whatever! And that’s why I finally decided to leave that morally and intellectually corrupt party.
It’s no coincidence if the Conservatives elect faceless, boring leaders with no convictions. They CANNOT afford to have any strong conservative convictions.
And this guarantees that one way or another, they will lose. They will probably lose the election because centre-left voters in Eastern Canada will not trust a leader who changes colours as O’Toole did, going from true blue to red within 24 hours after becoming leader.
Even if by some miracle they won the election, they would have no mandate for change. They are prisoners of that system, and they would inevitably govern from the centre-left, not as true conservatives, to get re-elected.
The Conservatives will NOT defend your interests. Erin O’Toole is not the leader of the official opposition, he’s the leader of the opposition to conservatism.
They’re taking your vote for granted and you’re wasting your vote if you give it to them.
Another option is supporting the Maverick Party.
I believe Canada is still a great country worth saving despite all its flaws. I’m pretty sure most of you would prefer to reform Canada. If you still want to keep the separation option open, don’t vote for Maverick. Vote provincially for the Wildrose Independence Party instead.
Separation can only happen with a provincial government holding a referendum. The Bloc Québécois has never done anything relevant for Quebec. It has done nothing to bring more autonomy to the province or make the separatist project stronger.
Maverick offers a two-track solution – either adopting the Triple-E Senate, or separation. If you believe there is still a possibility to reform Canada, don’t waste your time with Maverick and its Triple-E Senate proposal. Try the People’s Party instead. Change will come if Canadians across the country support it. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
I’m not going to tell you that I will win the next election with these ideas. There is far from a majority of voters in Canada in favour of this radical decentralization solution at the moment. But there is no majority in favour of any other solution either. No majority for a Triple-E Senate, or for separatism here in the West. There is only paralysis that the Liberals are exploiting to keep themselves in power.
The solution I offer is entirely feasible constitutionally – indeed, it is based on respecting the Constitution. And it is a lot more realistic politically.
You have to start somewhere. A small but dynamic and rising minority can raise issues and force others to debate them.
But there is an even more important reason to support the PPC. What we offer is an ideological revolution.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, we are losing our basic rights and freedoms at a rapid pace. Our governments keep growing. Our traditional Western values are fast eroding.
If this trend doesn’t reverse, we can all say goodbye to our prosperity and way of life. Whether or not you have a Triple-E Senate, a Conservative or Liberal government in Ottawa – it won’t make any difference.
We’re the only party openly fighting to reclaim our rights and freedoms, our sovereignty against globalist organizations.
The only party openly fighting to restore our institutions and our federation as they were conceived.
The only party openly fighting for true conservative values of freedom, respect, fairness, and responsibility.
Everybody else is moving left or far left, including the Conservative Party.
All the other parties want to drive us into a wall at different speeds. I want to stop the car and change direction!
That’s the option I’m offering you, as well as all Canadians across our great country. I hope you will consider it.
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