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PM eyes limits on Ottawa's powers [CA]

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Gordon, Sean
Publication Date: 
10 Nov 2006

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is discreetly sounding out some provincial premiers about setting formal limits on Ottawa's powers, even if it means possibly reopening the Constitution, sources say.

While discussions are at a preliminary stage, officials in Ottawa and several provinces suggested constraints on the federal spending power could eventually take the form of a constitutional amendment explicitly restricting Ottawa to its own areas of exclusive jurisdiction &emdash; a move that would reshape federal-provincial relations.

Under the Constitution, provinces have jurisdiction over areas such as education, social programs, municipalities and health, whereas federal responsibilities include foreign affairs, fisheries, defence and employment insurance, for instance.

Quebec and federal sources wouldn't speak for the record, but it's understood Harper has raised the topic of redefining powers in one-on-one conversations with several provincial leaders, even if it remains distant on the political horizon.

Harper has met privately in the past 10 days with New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, Quebec Premier Jean Charest, and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, and sources indicated he has spoken to others by phone, although it appears not all the premiers have recently been consulted on the issue.

Provincial sources said federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Michael Chong made the rounds of the provincial capitals in late August and early September to meet with the premiers as part of the fiscal imbalance negotiations and to gauge support on the spending power limits.

Officials surveyed in a handful of provincial capitals and in Ottawa urged caution, but some Quebec Tories clearly believe constitutional renewal around an achievable goal &emdash; like restricting Ottawa's ability to intervene in provincial jurisdictions such as child-care &emdash; is the party's political ace in the hole in the province.

There are also a number of shared jurisdictions, like transportation and the environment.
Squabbling over what constitutes whose jurisdiction has punctuated much of Canada's history, and any discussion of redefining those powers risks plunging the Tories into an internal debate over the Constitution.

Though many provinces are leery of entertaining constitutional change, Harper appears to be taking the political temperature on a debate that could well feature in the next federal campaign.

- reprinted from the Toronto Star

Entered Date: 
10 Nov 2006
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