Weather-Vane Federalism: Reconsidering Federal Social Policy Leadership

Article excerpt

In their article, "The New Federal Tool Belt," (1) Boismenu and Graefe reorient analytic debates about hierarchy in Canadian intergovernmentalism since the Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA). This agreement motivated two schematically different interpretations about the power that federal, provincial, and territorial (FPT) governments enjoy in the current era of social policy renewal. On one hand, the agreement reaffirms the value of federal spending in provincial jurisdiction by characterizing it as "essential to the development of Canada's social union" because it enabled "governments to introduce new and innovative social programs, such as Medicare ... that ... are available to all Canadians." (2) On the other hand, SUFA tempers this affirmation of federal spending by insisting that Ottawa "should proceed in a cooperative manner that is respectful of the provincial and territorial governments and their priorities." In fact, the agreement devotes an entire section to "Working in partnership for Canadians," which emphasizes joint planning and collaboration, as well as reciprocal notification and consultation between levels of government.

These commitments to cooperation, together with recent FPT agreements about labour-force training, children, and health care, motivated a number of scholars to label the SUFA-era as one of "collaborative federalism." (3) The collaborative modifier implies increased reliance on sector-specific agreements that are accompanied by ministerial councils responsible for fulfilling logistical and reporting requirements related to program implementation and review.

Some argue, however, that rhetoric about collaborative federalism belies the reality that the federal government has engaged in a great deal of unilateral decision-making. Ottawa largely set the timing, terms, and funding levels for reinvestments in health care that have dominated intergovernmentalism in the period. Outside of health care, the federal government increasingly circumvents the provinces and territories by relying on direct transfers to individuals or institutions. This pattern is evident in what Noel coined a series of "boutique programmes supporting research, innovation or higher education" that include the Millennium Scholarship Fund and the Canada Research Chairs. (4) The same pattern can be seen in the Supporting Community Partnerships Initiatives that delivers funding for homelessness; and the extension of parental leave by six months through Employment Insurance. McIntosh adds his voice to the federal unilateralism chorus in a recent article in this journal when he documents how Ottawa divided the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) into two parts, unilaterally deciding in the face of opposition from some premiers to earmark nearly two-thirds of its funds for health. (5)

Boismenu and Graefe advance debates about intergovernmental hierarchy because they acknowledge that the diverging points of view both have merit. They therefore encourage the field "to account for both unilateral federal action and the federal government's ongoing engagement in intergovernmental bargaining." To this end they recommend that the traditional focus on federal spending power be supplemented by heightened attention to three additional tools that Ottawa is honing to restore its authority at the social policy table after decades of fiscal retreat: structuring investments; accountability; and expertise creation. With this broader focus, Boismenu and Graefe ask us to consider "how the different tools are used together and ... how effective they are in reaching federal objectives, particularly compared to earlier tools like conditional shared-cost and block grants." (6)

Their questions are the point of departure for this article. Adequate answers require empirical evidence, more than Boismenu and Graefe provide in their comparative analysis of health, labour market, and child policy. I focus only on child policy to review in more detail how the three new tools factor into intergovernmental activity related to the Early Childhood Development Agreement (ECDA) of 2000, the Multilateral Framework on Early Learning and Care of 2003, and the bilateral agreements-in-principle (7) that the Martin government signed with all ten provinces in the year before the 2006 federal election. …