In the run-up to taking office as prime minister, one of the central issues on which Paul Martin has focused is the importance of better intergovernmental relations. To under- score his commitment to change, he chose to follow up his election as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada with a meeting with provincial and territorial premiers just prior to the Grey Cup game in Regina. What Martin no doubt knew is that better relations between Ottawa and the provinces is not only of interest to provincial leaders, it is one of the Canadian public’s top priorities.
In late October, the Centre for Research and Information on Canada (CRIC) made public the 2003 edition of Portraits of Canada, its annual tracking poll. Respondents were asked what the top priorities of the incoming prime minister should be (Figure 1). The three highest priorities were: more spending on health care (73 percent); improved federal-provincial co-operation (70 per- cent); and increased funding for educa- tion and training (69 percent).
In the West, better relations between Ottawa and the provinces is actually the number one priority, more important than increasing spending on health, education and training.
What explains the public’s keen interest in the state of intergovern- mental relations?
Matters of jurisdiction aside, it reflects a recognition among Canadi- ans that neither level of government can deliver the goods alone in such key policy fields as health care and education.
At the same time, the public is frustrated with the performance of political leaders at all levels. Since the end of the 1990s, there has been a sig- nificant drop in the number of Canadians who say their federal and provincial governments are working well together " only 42 percent now hold this view, compared with 63 per- cent in 1998 (Figure 2). (The decline in satisfaction with the state of intergov- ernmental relations has been especial- ly acute in Alberta.)
Nationally, when asked which level of government they trust most to pro- tect the programs they care about, one in three Canadians now says neither.
Canadians are not interested in jurisdictional disputes or finger point- ing to establish who is at fault. Seven out of ten say both levels of govern- ment are usually to blame when con- flicts occur. It is against this backdrop that the recent meeting among first ministers took place, with the partici- pants afterwards joining the chorus singing the praises of better relations.
The survey confirms other overlaps between Martin’s agenda and the public’s list of priorities. One example is the ”œdemocratic deficit.” After the three items already mentioned, the next most likely to be identified as a high priority is ”œmaking significant changes to our polit- ical institutions to make them much more open and democratic.” This makes democratic reform a higher priority for Canadians than improving relations between Canada and the US, cutting taxes, or spending more money on the military. That this item is relatively high up on the list speaks again of a certain appetite among citizens for a change in the way governments make decisions.
Westerners are prepared to go even further, since they not only identify dem- ocratic reform in general, but also Senate reform more specifically, as a high priori- ty for the new PM. What is striking is that among the top five items identified by Westerners as high priority, three have to do with improving the mechanisms of political decision making.
This brings us to ”œWestern alien- ation,” another of Martin’s concerns. Again, in singling out the issue for attention, he is responding to a gen- uine public preoccupation. In Alberta, for instance, the number saying that the province is treated with the respect it deserves in Canada has fallen almost 20 points, from 57 percent in 1998 to 38 percent today. Alberta, however, is far from the most aggrieved province in the federation. Only one in four res- idents of Saskatchewan and New- foundland say their province is treated with respect (Figure 3). And while 54 percent of Albertans say their province has less than its fair share of influence on important national decisions, no less than 70 percent in Nova Scotia and 72 percent in Saskatchewan hold the same view. If Martin is to make progress on the issue of regional dis- content, therefore, he will have to keep his eye on the concerns of the east of the country as well as the west, paying particular attention to the smaller Atlantic and Prairie provinces.
Those who believe that Martin will usher in an era of more positive relations, not only with the provinces but also with Washington, may be tempted to read the survey as suggesting that the public is on his side. The number of Canadians who want closer ties to the US is on the rise (Figure 4). Forty-four percent of Canadians believe Canada should have closer ties to the US, an increase of 18 points since March " at the start of the war in Iraq " when the figure for those wanting closer ties was 26 percent.
There are reasons to exercise caution, however, in deciding what exactly it is that Canadians what. In the first instance, the poll shows that despite the change registered since March, a majority still prefers to either keep relations about the same, or even more distant. More impor- tantly, answers to other questions in the survey suggest that while Canadians may want to ease the strains in the relationship that arose in the aftermath of the government’s decision not to participate in the war in Iraq, they do not necessarily wish to rethink any of the independent policy positions the country has taken.
One finding of note is that support for a common North American curr- ency, which had previously been increasing, has suddenly dropped (Figure 5). The strengthening Canadian dollar has no doubt made Canadians somewhat more self-confident.
It is attitudes towards the situation in Iraq, however, that really tell the story. In March, a majority of Canadians opposed joining the US invasion in the absence of a mandate from the United Nations. Today, the same situation holds. Were the UN to take over respon- sibility for Iraq and ask Canada to con- tribute soldiers to a multinational force, 81 percent of Canadians would agree. If, by contrast, the US were to invite Canada to contribute to its military efforts to stabilize Iraq, only 41 percent would want to accept (Figure 6). Canadians may want Mr. Martin to smooth things over with President Bush, but they do not want a shift away from the country’s preference for multilateral approaches to international affairs.
In terms of the so-called cities agenda, the public’s signals are more mixed. In an age when one of every two Canadians lives in the country’s four major urban areas " in and around Vancouver, in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor, in Toronto and in Montreal " the survey shows awareness that munic- ipalities have pressing needs. Specifical- ly, a majority (54 percent) believes that local and municipal governments need more money to meet their responsibili- ties. This figure is higher than the 43 percent who say that their provincial government needs more revenue and the 24 percent who think the same is true for the federal government.
The sense that municipal govern- ments have too little revenue is higher that average in Canada’s biggest city. In the Greater Toronto Area, 62 per- cent think that more revenue is need- ed for their municipal government to fulfill its responsibilities But this view is shared by many living outside Canada’s major metropolitan centres as well. Those most likely to hold this view are in Nova Scotia (73 percent), Newfoundland and Labrador (70 per- cent) and Saskatchewan (63 percent).
Despite these views, increasing money transferred to major cities is at the bottom of the list of priorities for most Canadians. Only 16 percent say that giving more money to the coun- try’s big cities is a high priority. How- ever, in the country’s three biggest cites " Toronto (GTA), Montreal and Vancouver " 39 percent, 33 percent and 16 percent respectively say that increased funding for cities should be a high priority for Martin.
It is also notable that while the Quebec Government has been at the forefront of the claim that there is a ”œfiscal imbalance” between Ottawa and the provinces, the sense that there is a need for more revenue at the provincial level is much more pronounced in the smaller provinces. While 43 percent of Quebe- cers say that their provincial govern- ment has too little revenue, the same view is held by 86 percent in New- foundland and Labrador, 68 percent in the Northwest Territories, 67 percent in Nova Scotia, and 63 percent in Saskatchewan (Figure 7).
Ontarians (40 percent) and Albertans (19 percent) are least likely to say their provincial governments have too little revenue to fulfill their responsibilities.
The survey offers at least two addi- tional warning notes for Martin. First, in Quebec, the election of a feder- alist provincial government and the desire to shelve debates about sovereign- ty have not been accompanied by a transformation in underlying views about the federation itself. Certainly, the current orientation of the government in Quebec is well supported: three in four Quebecers are favourable to the idea of the government playing a very active role to help the Canadian federation work better. At the same time, the num- ber of Quebecers who say that Canadian federalism has more advantages than disadvantages for their province remains virtually the same today (49 percent) as it was in 1998 (51 percent), a year in which the PQ won re-election. The degree of change in Quebec should not be exaggerated (see Figure 8).
Second, the survey shows that sup- port for Aboriginal rights remains luke- warm at best, and, in certain areas of the country " notably the Prairies " it is quite low. The constitutional protection of these rights and their periodic reaffir- mation by the courts do not seem to have the effect of legitimizing them in the eyes of all Canadians. The challenge for all governments in Canada lies not only in responding to the needs of Aboriginal communities and individu- als, but in raising awareness among other Canadians about the constitution- al as well as the moral foundation for the rights that Aboriginal peoples hold.
How much progress can the new PM be expected to make on these vari- ous issues? Have expectations been raised too high? The more honest ques- tion perhaps is this: Is it in the realm of the possible for any one leader, how- ever well prepared or well intentioned, to single-handedly make the types of changes Canadians seek? Progress on any file " be it health care, regional dis- content, Canada-US relations, munici- pal infrastructure, or Aboriginal issues " requires co-operation among many political leaders at different levels of government. The public knows this, which is why it avoids choosing sides and tends to hold all levels of govern- ment to account for policy failures. If Paul Martin is to succeed, he will need to be able to count on the kind of good will displayed by his provincial and ter- ritorial counterparts at their first meet- ing together in Regina.
The full poll, including graphics, method- ology and additional breakdowns, is available on the CRIC website, www.cric.ca