An idea worth considering
Tuesday, August 30, 2005
Either the federal Liberals are living in a fool's paradise or they have something very clever up their sleeves.
How else can you account for the suggestion that Prime Minister Paul Martin can win a majority government in the next federal election without making any gains in Quebec? This is especially perplexing given that it is based on the notion the Liberals can win more seats on the Prairies.
Weird. After all, Martin is no longer viewed as the answer to all of Canada's problems and the party is far from out of the woods on the sponsorship scandal. Whatever Justice John Gomery has to say about the role Liberal operatives had to play in the scandal is sure to play a major role in the federal election expected in February.
The question Liberals ought to be asking themselves is how they can hang on to the seats they now hold in Quebec. The most recent polls show the Bloc Quebecois now commands the support of at least 50 per cent of decided voters in Quebec, compared to the mid-20s for the Liberals.
Unless something should change drastically between now and next February, the Liberals seem destined to lose some of the seats they now hold in Quebec.
But just for the sake of argument, let's say David Herle is right. As the Liberals' national campaign co-chair, perhaps he knows something we don't. Whatever that might be, it gives him reason to believe that there are eight to 10 more seats the Liberals could win on the Prairies.
The question is, how do they intend to do it?
Martin is not going to reverse losing positions like maintaining gun registration, no matter how big a failure it has been. He could arrive at some kind of improved equalization program, which would help Saskatchewan, but it wouldn't be enough.
What the Liberals need is something significant to put in the window for undecided voters in all regions of the country, but particularly the West.
So free of charge, here's an idea on what Martin could do to help save his government.
Sometime this fall, he could announce a major government decentralization plan that would see parts of a number of different departments moved from Ottawa to various regions of the country. Handled properly, it could mean thousands of jobs relocated from Central Canada to various communities from coast to coast.
Of course, not everyone would want to go. A number of Ottawa-based civil servants probably couldn't see themselves moving to Saskatchewan or Nova Scotia, so the government would have to pay severance. That would cost some money, but it would also provide an opportunity for the Liberals to not only re-engineer government but downsize at the same time, which would be a winning idea in its own right.
This is not outside the realm of possibility. Over the years, a number of different government agencies have been moved, and it could make sense to move others.
The Farm Credit Corporation has been in Regina for years and there is an immigration centre in Vegreville, Alta. The Veterans Affairs Department has been relocated to Charlottetown and Tourism Canada was moved to British Columbia a couple of years ago.
This is a good start, but there may be more in the offing. In a recent visit with The StarPhoenix editorial board, Federal Public Works Minister Scott Brison described himself as a big supporter of decentralization.
For example, he questions whether it makes sense to have the Department of Fisheries and Oceans located in Ottawa, thousands of miles from the ocean. He was personally noncommittal about it, but the same thing could be said about Indian and Northern Affairs, which has been the subject of rumours for months.
Aside from the obvious economic benefits, Brison argues that moving government decision-makers closer to those they serve actually results in better public policy.
"Nobody here expects us to have all the answers, but Ottawa is the place that's trying to find all the answers," he said.
A decentralization program would also dovetail nicely with another program Brison has in the works, which could see the federal government selling off a lot of the buildings it owns in favour of leasing space from private owners. Ottawa occupies some 365 buildings nationwide, about half of which it owns outright. Facing a growing deferred maintenance bill, Brison estimates the government could save about 20 per cent if it were to simply lease space and sell its inventory of buildings.
If the government were to move on both initiatives simultaneously, it would not only move a lot of jobs to the regions, but it could stimulate the real estate sector in communities across the country. Not only would this be good policy for the Liberals, it would be good politics, too.
Not that he needs much help, but a move like that would cement Ralph Goodale's re-election. Perhaps more importantly, it would make the Liberals look a lot more attractive in four or five prairie seats where they narrowly missed winning in 2004.
Neither the Conservatives nor the NDP would dare oppose the idea of decentralization, and all of a sudden, the Liberals would start to look smart.
It could happen.
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