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Political power panel organized by students

By Janet Harron | Jan. 24, 2008

The Canadian Political Science Studies Association annual conference took place at Memorial University for the first time ever last week.

One of the major highlights of the conference was a panel discussion held Friday afternoon on the topic of whether federalism is working in Canada.  The 85-plus student attendees from Memorial and six other universities across the country were treated to some frank comments from a high powered panel that included former University Chancellor and new Lieutenant Governor John Crosbie, Independent newspaper editor Ryan Cleary, Fellow of the Centre of Governance John Trent and Visiting Assistant Professor Michael Temelini.

Each speaker had 20 minutes to state their case either for or against federalism. Dr. Temelini kicked off the discussion with a “yes” for federalism, “but with certain reservations.” 

He cited the extraordinary nature of Canada’s diversity but warned of the challenges of fiscal federalism including the equalization formula and changes to the Atlantic Accord.  The reality, Dr. Temelini said, is that “Atlantic Canada is significantly disadvantaged” and he categorized this lower capacity to access per capita funding as “troubling.”

Overall however Dr. Temelini maintained that by any standard Canadian federalism is a remarkable achievement, where serious differences have always been resolved without resorting to violence.

Not surprising, as the editor of a newspaper called the Independent (and whose regular column is titled Fighting Newfoundlander), Ryan Cleary took an opposing view.

Arguing that federalism doesn’t work and that something different should be tried, he began his remarks by stating that the mandate of his newspaper is to examine Newfoundland and Labrador’s relationship with the federal government.  A cost benefit analysis the paper embarked upon a few years ago was a “challenging and fascinating” investigation, especially, commented Mr. Cleary, in light of the current conflict between Premier Williams and Prime Minister Harper. 

He then proceeded to read from his Friday, Jan. 18, column, likening the relationship to a bad marriage, and suggesting that perhaps the United States would be a better partner to Newfoundland and Labrador than Canada.

Dr. John Trent got the first big laugh of the afternoon by waving his new book and encouraging all political science students to run right out and purchase a copy.  Maintaining that federalism never works in theory, only in practice, he focused in on the perennial issue of Quebec. 

Painting a positive picture of the tremendous change in Quebec (50 per cnet of new immigrants to Quebec choose French as their first language compared to 29 per cent in the 1960s), he asked the question – Why do 49 per cent of Quebecers still favour the separatist/sovereign movement?  To Dr. Trent, it comes down to demographic fears and the need for additional constitutional protection.  Ultimately he said, in Quebec “language is a blood sport” and Francophones are scared that they will not be able to overcome their minority position in Canada.

Last but not least was new Lieutenant Governor John Crosbie who was in fine form, seeming to relish the opportunity for speaking freely before taking on his new duties.

Mr. Crosbie defended Prime Minister Harper’s decision regarding renewable resources, saying that it was a foolish promise to make in light of such necessary concerns as political pragmatism and the cost to the other provinces.

A big fan of the federal system, Mr. Crosbie conceded that this did not mean that federalism couldn’t be improved (he specifically cited the Senate in this regard) but that it was an absolute necessity that the provinces not be pushed around by the central government in Ottawa.  In his inimitable colourful speech, he likened the annual first minister’s conference to a cockfight – “Danny has them all terrified and has made it awkward for the feds as a result.”  Summing up Crosbie maintained that “we have been treated well in Confederation” and wistfully declared, “By Christ, if I was bilingual I’d have been in for 20 years and I wouldn’t be complaining about prime ministerial power.”

Assistant Professor Alex Marland of the Political Science department apologized for the gender bias of the panel and encouraged female students to participate fully in the question and answer portion of the event.  However the gender bias didn’t seem to bother Shannon Tobin, former president of the Canadian Political Science Students Association and one of the organizers of the conference.

 “The best panel I have ever seen. It was entertaining, engaging, and enlightening. The participants each brought to the table their personal experiences with federalism as well as their personalities. There were clashes on political perspectives that were emotional yet at the same time intellectual,” enthuses Shannon. “I was honoured that they participated in this panel, and I know many individuals from out of the province who will never forget this event.”  Professor Marland concurs:  “It was great to be exposed to such different points of view. For instance Mr. Cleary charged that the cod have disappeared because the federal government mismanaged the fishery. Mr. Crosbie responded by suggesting that had the provincial government been in charge the fish would in fact have been gone 20 years earlier. It was this sort of exchange that kept the discussion lively and the audience wanting more.” The CPSSA was created in 1996 as a body to represent Canada's undergraduate political science students, and to engender communication between the many political science associations and clubs in Canada's universities.  Their main communication tool is the annual conference held each January at a member university.