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Some seven years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced it, "open federalism" is not serving Canada well.

Of course, on its face, it sounds perfectly kosher. Who could possibly be opposed to the idea that each level of government, federal and provincial, should stick to its jurisdictional knitting? The federation works best, on this logic, when Ottawa sticks to its constitutionally defined responsibilities, while the provinces stick to theirs. Everything is clear and Cartesian, and so everyone ought to be comfortable and happy.

So what's the problem? The federation today seems at peace, internally. Quebec, even with a Parti Quebecois government, is not credibly threatening secession. And we seem to be surviving the global banking and fiscal crisis with reasonable alacrity. Surely, this is all as the fathers of Confederation intended and anticipated.

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Taken to its extreme, open federalism means that there is no compelling reason whatever for the Prime Minister and Premiers to meet – not regularly, not ever; or almost. On my count, the current Prime Minister has met with the Premiers, in toto, only once in his seven years in office – far less than he has met with the leaders of at least two dozen foreign countries. He carries on an unfortunate tradition, in this sense, from the late Chrétien and Martin prime ministerships, of generally avoiding formal first ministers' conferences in the expectation that these would yield more pain, in political optics and in cost to the federal treasury, than political and policy gain. However, only the current government has so glorified interjurisdictional disentanglement that most Canadians have become distracted from the enfeeblement of our national performance as a result of a federal framework that is increasingly denuded of political and policy energy.

Let's take the cleanest example of apparent open federalism to make our point: foreign affairs and foreign policy. According to open federalism, the federal government uncontroversially 'does' foreign policy. In other words, this is pure federal terrain. Ottawa is apparently in the right for guarding this monopoly on foreign policy jealously. And, we ought to presume, provinces should stay out. Besides, what do the provinces know about foreign affairs?

Some truths commend themselves to this logic: the Constitution Act, 1867 gives Ottawa exclusive legislative jurisdiction over foreign policy through the residual branch of the section 91 general power. And Ottawa clearly leads on foreign affairs, in executive terms, through the Crown prerogative. No surprise, then, that Prime Minister Harper, in 2007, decided (on his own, via Crown prerogative) that Canada would 'pivot' to the Americas in order to become a strategic leader in that region. More recently, we have been joining the rest of the world in 'pivoting' to Asia. Canada has also already been 'pivoting' for several years to the Arctic, which amounts to a pivot to Russia. The provinces were nary consulted on any of these pivots, as they have no constitutional business in Canadian foreign policy. So far so good.

One question: if Canada pivots to the Americas, where in the world are all the Spanish and Portuguese speakers that we indubitably need to succeed? If we pivot to Asia, where are the Mandarin, Korean, Hindi and Bahasa Indonesia speakers (something the Australians are developing in their own, far more sophisticated Asia pivot)? If we pivot to Russia, where are the Russian speakers? The conceptual answer from open federalism: the federal government does not "do" education. Period. Education is for the provinces! The practical result: Canada, having pivoted several times over in foreign affairs without the requisite capabilities to make such pivots credible, is pivoting into the absurd. Nothing is happening, and no one is taking us seriously.

Note to the Prime Minister: We need a national languages strategy urgently – led decisively by the federal government, involving education and skills training, with deep participation by the provinces. This requires policy collaboration between levels of government, the spending of money, and long-term systemic pressure for serious results.

Just as the federal government remains clinically disinterested in education, in constitutional deference to the provinces, we might presume that the provinces are themselves staying out of Canadian foreign affairs. Not so. Most provinces have some species of foreign quasi-diplomatic and trade or commercial representation in a number of important capitals around the world. Many of them spend not inconsiderable money on a hodgepodge of international matters, from disaster relief (why on Earth would Ontario wish to help relieve, say, a typhoon in Southeast Asia?) to cultural promotion. Meantime, premiers regularly wax promiscuously on a panoply of foreign-policy matters, from war and peace to Canadian bilateral relations with specific countries – matters that they should know are the proper preserve of Ottawa. The retort from the Open Federalists in Ottawa on all these fronts of apparent provincial overreach: silence.

And so only one level of government – the federal government – is in retreat. The provinces have opportunistically (and dutifully) occupied some of the liberated space (including via the Council of the Federation); the rest, unfortunately, has been occupied by incoherence and non-movement. Federal-provincial-territorial meetings and transactions take place regularly on a host of second- and third-order issues, but there is a net dearth of political and policy oxygen in the overall federation in virtue of the absence of any federal pressure applied to the resolution of a host of major challenges for Canada in this early new century.

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From the free-trade negotiations with the European Union (now in their fourth year, with the provinces having, on the strength of the 1937 Labour Conventions case, a near-veto on a variety of federal negotiating positions) to the future of our vast energy resources, the need to renew our national infrastructure and, among many others issues, the growing importance and complexity of Aboriginal rights in a variety of major national economic projects, Canada has no serious 'system' in place for federation-wide planning, decision-making, results and accountability. The most strategic level of government is strategically absent or uninvolved, and so no strategy prevails in the national interest. Our governments don't speak to one another, and nothing much of national consequence happens, except by omission.

No surprise, then, that in the period of time during which Toronto has hailed 'historic' extensions to its ageing subway system, China has populated much of its eastern seaboard with high-speed trains. More strategic federations, such as Australia, try to replicate China's planning pragmatism while preserving the democratic advantages of federalism through the creation of multiple levels of intergovernmental planning committees, with a first ministers' meeting at its apex to lubricate and provide instruction to the entire web of committees. That's why Canberra has determined that its foreign policy, if it's to be taken seriously, starts in the nation's schools – through the learning of foreign languages by the country's future leaders.

Back to Canada: The Prime Minister should meet, for the first time in many years, with his provincial counterparts this fall. The agenda should be modest and transactional – no drama. Let the game be indefinite and the stakes of each meeting small. But let these meetings happen three times per year, ever year, with sustained support from shadow bureaucratic committees that in turn report to the next meeting of first ministers. The federal government will not 'invade' provincial territory, and vice versa, but Ottawa will begin to apply a pressure to a national policy infrastructure that desperately needs a kick in the pants.

Irvin Studin is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Global Brief magazine, and MPP program director and assistant professor in the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto.

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