Everyone is probably debate-blogging right now. This is not directly about the debate, but I thought it was topical to write about, effectively, what people in Quebec call the fiscal imbalance---in the context of constitutional solutions.
A couple of posts back I wrote that
basically mainstream sovereigntism and mainstream Quebec (ie, non-federal Liberal) federalism are positions in between the Constitutional status quo and complete independence. I'm not sure that there is a practicable position between these two positions given the way that Canada is presently constituted.
and I mentioned that I suspect that solutions like Meech likely could never have worked. Now, there are two dimensions in which "could never have worked" really applies: one is that an agreement could never have been reached, and the other is that an agreement, if reached, would have perverse effects.
I do want to talk about why I think an agreement could never have been reached, but I'm going to save that for a longer (set of) post(s). Here I just want to make at least brief mention as to why most "intermediate" solutions to the problems in the Quebec/Canada relationship would have consequences that I, at least, wouldn't be very happy about.
A great deal of the provincial-federal antagonism regarding Quebec is in the distribution of federal-provincial powers, wherein the federal government has been making use in recent decades of a very broad interpretation of its pouvoir de dépenser, it's power to spend, in order to intervene and regulate activities that may technically be within the purview of provincial governments. This is an irritation to most provincial politicians, but nowhere does it rankle more than in Quebec, where the ability of the province to set up its own social model is widely considered part of Quebec's distinctness. Consequently there is bureaucratic overlap between Ottawa and Quebec City, where one or the other starts a program that overlaps on the others existing work (and it happens in both directions). Not only is this an obstacle to politicians, ordinary citizens notice this via the red tape they must endure and through their taxes. This is part of the "fiscal imbalance" complaint in Quebec, the phenomenology of which requires a different post.
It is common to both mainstream sovereigntist and federalist positions in Quebec to then say that Canada as a whole should be more of a Europeanish "common market" situation, where essentially the federal government would retain monetary/fiscal/economic/trade policy powers (as delineated, anyway, in the Constitution minus the pouvoir de dépenser), while Quebec would retain total control over social spending. This is in accordance with the most conservative definitions of Canadian constitutionalism and federalism. It is easy to see why this solution would be popular in Quebec as there would be comparatively little dislocation of existing systems to implement it---no constitutional wrangling and so forth.
Unfortunately, I believe it's a decidedly suboptimal solution. Let us take the example of the failed European constitution. It is important to note that European non-federalism is far more intrusive in the affairs of its member states than the federal government is in Canada---it's almost a reverse situation, where the constituent entities retain defence and foreign policy independence while losing vast control over much of economic and social policy.
One popular analysis of its failure (that I agree with) is the fact that the putative constitution attempted to codify certain fiscal and monetary policies at a European level without also making European guarantees regarding social goals. The French public, when presented with a referendum correctly, in my opinion, rejected this. Because they realized an important truth: that the hand that controls economic policy rocks the social policy cradle.
Even Canada itself bears this out. Linda McQuaig documented it entertainingly in multiple works, in particular Shooting the Hippo. It's undeniable that the monetary policies pursued during the Mulroney years have crippled many areas of social spending. The link is clear. And even the most orthodox of economists would agree that there is a relationship between Constitutional federal powers such as trade policy and social policy, since one must compensate for the other. And for years, foolish (or dishonest) people demanded loudly the US-dollarization of the Canadian economy---and, as we can see, in many dimensions including the social, they were correctly resisted.
Thus it is very hard for me to understand why the "middle band" of Quebec politics would support a solution that would provide them the illusion of autonomy while allowing federal policy to cripple them indirectly. If social policy is to reside purely in Quebec, then economic and trade policy should also reside in Quebec---that is, full independence, 100%. Perhaps not all at once, but they will eventually need their own currency to set their own agenda. Otherwise, they would risk exacerbating existing race-to-the-bottom conditions between provinces---already provincial politicians compare their provinces to Alberta or wherever.
Or they could avoid the race altogether, by accepting that the federal government has a necessary coordinative role among the provinces, and that includes the power to spend and to withhold funds. It has long been noted that federations have centralizing tendencies. Australia is brought up sometimes (another matter for a putative post on the phenomenon of the fiscal imbalance), and it is province-equivalents. But their constitution enshrines the primacy of the central government to the point that it has resulted, apparently, in a nearly unitary state.
In other words, as I said above, I don't believe that there are satisfactory intermediate solutions between acquiescence to the federal centralizing tendency and 100% independence. And this is largely due to the way in which states and economies are presently defined and constituted---in such a way that local autonomy, which I believe in principle is highly desirable, is also local weakness, which is emphatically not.