Humpty Dumpty

Last week, the Globe’s Neil Reynolds blamed all the troubles, real or imaginary, of Canadian federalism on the “peace, order, and good government” (POGG) clause of s. 91 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Undeterred by his failure last time around to grasp the actual constitutional law he was bewailing, which I pointed out here, Mr. Reynolds is at it again, albeit with a new culprit: subsection 2A of s. 91, which authorizes Parliament to legislate with respect to “[u]nemployment insurance.” A week ago, Mr. Reynolds was ignorant of that provision’s existence, and castigated Employment Insurance (EI) as an abuse of the POGG power. It’s nice to know he might actually have read the Constitution Act, 1867. It would have been even nicer if he had acknowledge his previous mistake, but never mind.

Mr. Reynolds is manifestly distressed by what he perceives as the downfall, apparently in 1943, though I’m not sure why then, of the “limited, decentralized government” the Constitution Act, 1867 set up. Notwithstanding Lord Atkin’s “prescient warning” in the Unemployment Insurance Reference about the dangers of a federal spending power which “would afford the Dominion speedy passage into the provincial domain,” provinces and the federal government agreed to a constitutional amendment which transferred the competence to legislate with respect to unemployment insurance from the provinces to Parliament. Mr. Reynolds thinks this was catastrophic:

As Lord Atkin anticipated, the program led, a single surrender of provincial jurisdiction at a time, to a notional constitution that lets federal governments collect taxes and distribute the proceeds to any person, organization or corporation it wants.

We now think it absurd that a British aristocrat could have blocked – as illegal – a national unemployment insurance program in Canada. In retrospect, Lord Atkin proved more perceptive than this country’s determined centralizers. He perceived that the [Constitution Act, 1867] protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.

Mr. Reynolds then goes on to follow Lord Atkin (dissenting in Liversidge v. Anderson) in invoking Alice’s question to Humpty Dumpty:  “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” Humpty Dumpty thought he could. Mr. Reynolds apparently is Humpty Dumpty himself, thinking as he does that he can make our constitution mean so many different things.

For it is absurd to blame the alleged abuses of the federal spending power (the power to collect taxes and distribute the proceeds however it sees fit, without regard to exclusive provincial jurisdiction) on EI. The power to implement EI is narrow, clear, and grounded in a specific constitutional provision; the problem of the federal spending power is precisely that it is unlimited in scope, vague, and has no clear constitutional basis. EI and the federal spending power are polar opposites.

And it is equally absurd to claim that the Constitution Act, 1867 “protected Canadians’ human rights by protecting their property rights from excessive federal power.” For one thing, property rights are no less vulnerable to provincial than to federal invasion. The most economically radical government in Canadian history was the Social Credit one that came to power in Alberta in 1935. Its repressive legislative programme was struck down by the Supreme Court in the Alberta Statutes Reference, [1938] S.C.R. 100, because it infringed the broad economic powers of Parliament. And the extent of these powers – over taxation, over the banks, over interest rates, over bankruptcy – means that if Parliament set about undermining property rights, it could very well have done it. Of course, the framers of the Constitution Act, 1867, rejected the American example and refused entrenching protections for property rights in the constitution (as did the framers of the Charter).

More broadly, Mr. Reynolds’ belief that Canada is an absurdly centralized country with a federal government of unlimited power is groundless. Canada might be the most decentralized federation in the world; it is certainly less centralized than the United States, Australia, or Germany. Just last year, in Reference re Securities Act, 2011 SCC 66, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down – to the consternation and disbelief of many centralizers in the business and academic communities – the proposed federal securities legislation. Canadian federalism is alive and kicking – too much for some. Mr. Reynolds would really do well to find another topic on which to fulminate.

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