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Winnipeg Free Press, Friday, April 30, 2004

Focus properly shifts to Harper

by Frances Russell

Judging from the vituperation that greeted former Progressive Conservative leader and prime minister Joe Clark's warnings about the extremism of Conservative leader Stephen Harper, the new party's supporters are very worried.

They should be. Mr. Clark is widely respected by Canadians. In fact, if his party hadn't destroyed itself, he -- and it -- might now be sitting on the threshold of power.

Because the news has been all scandal, all the time, for the past several months, Mr. Harper has escaped much notice. Mr. Clark has ensured that is about to change. It is not dirty politics or throwing mud, nor, in Mr. Harper's own memorable phrase, is it acting like "cornered rats," to point to the public record.

Mr. Harper's views on everything from the need to build a firewall around Alberta to protect it from a hostile federal government to his contempt for "second-tier, socialistic" Canada, are all over the nation's news pages, and have been for years. So, too, has been his opposition to bilingualism, employment equity, regional development, multiculturalism and aboriginal and minority rights. He has said MPs "have to be free to express their moral and religious opinions" on issues like abortion and capital puni shment.

Mr. Harper is at odds with Canadian mainstream opinion. So, too, increasingly, is Alberta, Mr. Harper's home province and the genesis of this new U.S. Republican, as opposed to Conservative, party. Alberta's ethos is becoming ever more American -- Texan, actually. And its burgeoning resource riches are destabilizing Canada's fiscal equilibrium.

Canada once had three "have" provinces, Alberta, Ontario and B.C. Now, there is really only one -- Alberta. Ontario does not receive equalization payments and so is still nominally in the "have" column although it has a $134 billion debt.

Within the year, Alberta will be debt-free and have $5 billion in extra cash. Alberta produces $10,000 in revenue per capita, nearly double the $6,126 the other provinces will attain after receiving equalization. It soon will be able to spend every other province poor by offering public programs unparalleled elsewhere in the country or shred public services in every other province by creating an internal Bahamas-style tax haven.

The rising inbalance helps drive the impoverishment of Canada's constitutionally enshrined equalization program designed to ensure provinces can provide comparable levels of public services at comparable rates of taxation. Because resources are under provincial jurisdiction, Ottawa cannot tap Alberta's enormous oil and gas riches, so the federal government has removed Alberta on one side and the Maritime provinces on the other from its equalization calculations. The so-called "five-province standard" has ca used equalization payments to plummett from 1.3 per cent of Gross Domestic Product in 1987-88 to just 0.7 per cent in 2003-04.

In the papers accompanying the recent Manitoba budget, the provincial government warns that fiscal disparities between the provinces are beginning to widen, "leading to disclocation of people and skewing business decisions based on assessments of net fiscal benefits -- tax loads and service levels -- rather than actual economic factors."

While the rest of the country swims in a sea of red ink, Alberta, in the words of a recent Calgary Herald article, "has no mortgage, no credit card payment and a steady gusher of gross income to elevate itself into an upper class of its own. It's the filthy rich relative in a struggling family. A feud is bound to break out."

The "in your face" stance toward the rest of Canada by Premier Ralph Klein's government on a host of social, environmental and economic issues isn't helping matters. Ideologically committed to privatization, the Klein government is flatly refusing to accept any conditions on new federal money for health care and is instead musing openly about challenging the Canada Health Act head-on by imposing user fees. The Alberta treasury has repeatedly been used to attack the Canadian Wheat Board. The province vehemen tly opposed the Kyoto Accord on global warming.

For the second year in a row, Alberta separatism loomed large over the provincial Tory convention in Banff last weekend. A separatist sympathizer ran for the party presidency with the support of at least one cabinet minister. While he lost, the 1,200 delegates passed resolutions calling for the government "to establish policies and procedures that define and assert Alberta's provincial rights and independence."

Mr. Harper has called private health care "a natural development," derided multilateralism as "a weak nation strategy," and advocated complete continental integration with the U.S. In 1994, as president of the National Citizens' Coalition, Mr. Harper mused that whether Canada ended up with one government, two, or 10, "the Canadian people will require less government."

An Alberta-oriented, Harper-led Conservative Party would steer Canada sharply to the right, socially, economically and internationally. Mr. Clark merely stated a well-documented fact.

Frances Russell writes a regular column for the Winnipeg Free Press. She can be reached at FrancesRussell@mts.net

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