The Conservative Party recently launched the “We're better off with Harper” campaign with the claim that “with over one million net new jobs created in the recovery, Canada's economy is on the right track – thanks to the strong leadership of Stephen Harper and Canada's Conservatives.”
The number in that claim is carefully chosen, and taken in isolation is factually correct. In the five years of recovery from June 2009 to June 2014, total employment indeed rose by 1,091,400 jobs.
But if we do the count from June 2008, before the onset of the recession and the big job losses it caused, the increase in employment to date has been a more modest 753,000 jobs. And the national unemployment rate in June 2014 was, at 7.1%, still significantly higher than the average of 6.0% in 2007 and 6.1% in 2008.
The run up to the recent Quebec election prompted a revival of the argument that only federal transfers keep that fiscally-challenged province afloat. For example, Mark Milke of the Fraser Institute argued in the National Post that Quebec is “massively subsidized by the rest of Canada.”
This argument is hugely over-done. And it contradicts a more effective and positive argument for federalism, namely that it has been no barrier to the construction of a distinctive and progressive social model in Quebec.
In their book “The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone” Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue that social well-being – measured using a range of widely accepted indicators – varies a lot between advanced industrial countries. They show that there is little relationship between the level of GDP per capita within a country and social well-being. However, they find that there is a strong positive relationship between a low level of income inequality and well-being; in other words, they find that societies with a high degree of income equality among its members are generally happier and healthier than more unequal societies.
Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world. Public services (notably health, education at all levels, social services such as elder care, and local services) are delivered and financed primarily by provincial and municipal governments.
The Canadian Constitution states that the provinces should have sufficient resources to provide “reasonably comparable services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”
Any project for social and economic equality in Canada faces a challenge: our primary collective lever for change, the state, is a confusing and complicated machine of federal-provincial relationships. Most advocates of a more egalitarian Canada are frustrated by this. Reform energies are lost in doing the “federalism foxtrot” of getting the federal and provincial players on side, while provincial desires to do things their own way conflict with the idea of all Canadians sharing the same economic and social rights. Since at least the 1930s, the dominant view of the equality-seekers has been to strengthen the federal government and its capacity to impose its agenda on the provinces. In a more muted form, Towards A More Equal Canada calls for “federal leadership.”