On Feb. 4, 1999, the nine provincial and two territorial governments signed the social union agreement. This new framework will supposedly provide better standards for the funding of the social safety net, and force the federal government to consult with the provinces before taking any unilateral action.
However, a side commitment to increase the level of federal transfer payments for health care in the upcoming federal budget has tainted the social union document.
In the text of the framework, the provincial and territorial governments agreed to three basic principles:
- To support country-wide access to "essential social programs and services of comparable quality."
- That "stable, sustainable and affordable" funding will be provided for all Canadians.
- That all provinces follow the three medicare principles of "universality, accessibility, and publicly run."
There are other important sections, including the need for governments to ensure that all Canadians have freedom of movement within the boundaries of our country to explore various opportunities.
Of course, there was one little problem - Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard refused to sign the deal. His province is forced to follow the social union guidelines, mind you, but his absence is duly noted.
And why did Bouchard stay out of this agreement? The provincial proposal of having the right to opt out of national programs and receive financial compensation to create their own programs was denied. This has always been an important piece of legislation for Bouchard, so one can imagine his disappointment when it was not included.
However, it seems as if the wisest person in the country right now is the separatist premier who didn't sign the pact. Perhaps he noticed the same thing that many columnists have come to realize about the social union.
As noted by David Bercuson and Barry Cooper in the Calgary Herald, the Liberals have "been caught with its hidden agenda exposed." Or as I like to put it, the real agenda of the social union is to use smoke and mirrors to help preserve their favourite sacred cow, health care.
Sure, the Liberals will state that federal-provincial health transfers and the social union were two completely different deals. On paper, that's quite true. But in reality, a government's best strategy in the game of politics is to barter for the best possible agreement at the bargaining table.
Or, in this case, the best increase in health care payments that money can buy.
Although it was the CCF that established the concept of socialized health services, the Liberals have truly been the guardians of health care. They have had a vested interest ever since William Lyon Mackenzie King proposed to create a National Health Plan in the 1945 federal election.
Even under Louis St. Laurent in 1956, the Liberals made an early offer to cost-share half of the hospital and diagnostic services in Canada.
Thus, is it any surprise that Jean Chretien upped the ante of health care transfers to the provinces from $1 billion to an amount rumoured to be double his original offer?
It was a stunning roll of the dice, and he won handily.
Chretien has kept in place a costly, bureaucratic, poorly run public health care system with long waiting lists for sick Canadians. And he has undermined the political influence of the provinces by preventing a veto to any legislation, and by preventing any sort of an opt out clause.
Of course, we shouldn't forget the supporting cast of the provincial and territorial premiers. How can we ever thank politicians like Ralph Klein and Mike Harris for trading in their political principles for a little extra health care money?
Will there be any consequences to the signing of the social union agreement?
In a recent paper, William Robson and Daniel Schwanen of the C.D. Howe Institute aptly point out that an increase in federal transfers could be reflected in either a higher tax level (precluding any tax cuts) or by higher interest payments (precluding the paying down of the federal debt).
This will have an adverse effect on taxpayers from Ontario and Alberta, who pay a large share of federal tax each year, and who will see their Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) payment levels increase to higher proportions.
Every extra CHST dollar for Ontario would raise the province's income taxes by $1.34, and Alberta would see an increase of $1.37.
And there is the looming possibility of yet another Quebec referendum.
Canada's venerable economic future is being decided without the participation of one province. A nuisance of a province, to be sure, but still a key figure in federal-provincial relations. It remains to be seen how Bouchard will react in the coming months to the social union agreement.
If I may paraphrase the popular near-sighted cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, "Oh Chretien, you've done it again!"
The Teflon prime minister, along with his merry little band of politically diverse provincial and territorial premiers, have played with our futures once more.