Prime Minister Harper outlines his Government's priorities and open federalism approach

Montréal, Québec
20 April 2006



Thank you, Isabelle,
Honoured head table guests,
Members of the Chamber of Commerce,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s always a pleasure for me to come back to Montreal, and I want to thank the Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, and in particular its President, Isabelle Hudon, for their kind invitation.

And, Ladies et Gentlemen, before I begin, I would like to pay special tribute to the Members of Parliament from Quebec who are serving in our new national government.

These are men and women of quality and integrity that I am honoured to have as colleagues:

  • Members of Parliament - Luc Harvey, Jacques Gourdes, Daniel Petit, Steven Blaney and Christian Paradis.
  • Senators – Pierre Claude Nolin and Andrée Champagne.
  • Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities, Lawrence Cannon,
  • Minister of International Cooperation, the Francophonie and Official Languages, Josee Verner
  • Minister of Industry, Maxime Bernier,
  • Minister of Labour and Economic Development for Quebec, Jean-Pierre Blackburn,
  • and, in particular, the individual who, at my request set aside a lucrative private career to represent the Greater Region of Montreal in the federal Cabinet,
    Michael Fortier.

Make no mistake, my friends, Montreal is a major city – for Quebec, for Canada, and for the world – and, I don’t care about Liberal criticism – I am determined that Montreal will be fully represented in our government.

In fact, all Canadians want to be in Montreal at this time of the year.

Nature is springing back to life, café terraces are full, Hab fans are caught up in playoff fever, and people are happily going about their spring cleaning.

And they’re not alone.

Because we too are in the mood for cleaning. In fact, our government got the broom out last week when it tabled the Federal Accountability Act.

We find ourselves today in a modern convention centre, having gathered to discuss the important questions of the day.

But it is also an historic setting, and we have been brought together by an honourable institution.

When fifty or so businessmen founded the Montreal Committee of Trade, the forerunner of your association, in 1822, Canada didn’t even exist yet.

One of our former Prime Ministers, Lester Pearson, once said that Canada has more geography than history.

I am, of course, the last person on earth who would dare to contradict a former Liberal Prime Minister…

But, the fact remains that significant political change has taken place at different times in our history.

And on January 23 of this year, Canadians from across this great country of ours voted for change.

And they asked our party to lead that change.

The big change ushered in on January 23 didn’t just happen all by itself

  • and it was no accident either.

Right here, in this very same Palais des congrès, the new Conservative Party gathered in March 2005 for its founding national convention and proceeded to set out its program for change.

It’s here

  • that we adopted a modern political program.
  • that we became the alternative to an out-of-touch, discredited government.

And it’s right here, in the heart of Montreal, that we became the voice for a new brand of federalism, one marked by openness.

I have come here today to tell you that yes indeed, a whole lot of things are going to change under the new Conservative government.

We haven’t forgotten that our slogan in Quebec during the last election was "changeons pour vrai".

And we’re going to deliver that change.

The Election Results

But it is important, ladies and gentlemen, to reflect for a moment on the results of the federal election.

The biggest story of the evening of January 23, anywhere in Canada, was the result for our party in the province of Quebec.

Counted out by almost every observer at the outset, we gained more than a quarter of the Quebec vote, winning the ridings of the outstanding Members of Parliament we have here today, and finishing second in most of the rest.

Why did this happen?

Of course, I would like to believe this was due to my personal qualities – my powers of seduction as we say – but I doubt this had much to do with it.

No doubt, Quebecers were attracted by elements of our platform, and I will speak about some of these in a moment.

But I think it is more profound than that. I believe the population understood the real meaning of our slogan – that it is now more than just "time for a change." It is time for a new departure toward the future, time to turn the page on history.

I believe the bulk of Quebecers wanted more than to protest a government that was directionless and an opposition that was useless. They want to turn the page on an era of political polarization.

The federal Liberals may really believe that everything should be run out of Ottawa and that whoever opposes their corruption must be in league with the separatists. But Quebecers simply don’t believe that.

The Bloc really does believe that everything should be run out of Quebec City, but that they themselves should sit in the federal Parliament forever. Quebecers understand the contradiction.

The truth is that Quebecers want neither the Liberal view of federalism nor the Bloc view of independence. They’ve had 40 years to adopt one or the other and they aren’t going to.

Quebecers want a stronger Quebec in a better Canada. This is a message our government has heard. We are going to turn the page. Not just by rejecting separation (which, as a federal government, we obviously reject) but by changing the debate, changing the agenda and changing the federation.

My child, my choice

Let me explain what I mean by citing one of our priorities from the Speech from the Throne – child care.

Parents today are faced with the daunting challenge of having to reconcile their family and professional obligations.

If they are to do so, the last thing they need is to be deprived of choice.

That’s why the new Government of Canada plans to lend a hand to all young families.

We’re going to give parents a family allowance of $1 200 a year for each child under the age of six.

And – surprise, surprise – the Bloq and the Liberals are against it.

According to the Liberals, it’s Ottawa that should decide.

According to the Bloc, it’s the province that should decide.

But our government feels that, in the best interests of children, it’s the parents who should decide!

The previous government consulted with hundreds of experts to design its one-size-fits-all plan.

We preferred to put our trust in millions of experts. 

And these experts go by the name of Mom and Dad.


Another example from the Speech from the Throne is the issue of accountability.

As I said earlier, last week our new government tabled our very first piece of legislation, the Federal Accountability Act.

This Act will allow us to do what we promised to do – clean house.
It’s not, as the Bloc would have us believe, a question of federalism. It is simply a question of effective government.

You can’t govern effectively without trust. And there can be no trust without integrity and transparency.

For example, I’ve said that we’re going to take a page out of René Lévesque’s book

We’re going to reform the way federal political parties are funded by borrowing from the model introduced by René Lévesque in Quebec City – not because Mr. Levesque was a sovereignist, but because he was cleaning up government.

Gone will be the days of dark little secrets, of hidden treasures, of kickbacks to friends or party coffers, and of brown envelopes.

We’re going to put an end to the culture of entitlement.

And replace it with a culture centred on accountability.

This is the toughest, most thorough anti-corruption piece of legislation in Canadian history.

It contains a host of comprehensive measures aimed at cleaning up Government.

Once implemented, this Act will:

  • Drastically reduce the ceiling for personal donations to political parties, while banning all corporate and union donations;
  • Put an end to former ministers, ministerial staffers, and senior public officials profiting from public service by banning them from lobbying the government they worked for five years;
  • Protect whistleblowers while giving more power to the Lobbyists Registrar, Ethics Commissioner, Information Commissioner and the Auditor General to enforce clear rules; and
  • Clean up federal appointments, contracting, advertising, polling and procurement policies; and
  • Bring under the Access to Information Act, for the first time, a range of federal institutions like Crown Corporations, independent officers and special foundations.

Simply put, the Federal Accountability Act will change forever the way business is done in Ottawa – not just to improve the image of federalism in Quebec after the sponsorship scandal (though it will do that), but because every Canadian taxpayer has a right to expect better from their federal government.

Tax reduction: the ultimate decentralization

The same thing is true of the fiscal imbalance.

As you know, our government admits there is a fiscal imbalance but, like everyone in this debate, we have our own definition of the fiscal imbalance.

Yes, there is a fiscal imbalance between levels of government – and I will come to that in a moment.

But probably the most important fiscal imbalance in this country is between all levels of government and the citizens and businesses of this country who are all overtaxed.

Even if, as the Liberals and Bloc wanted, we had all taxation powers at one level of government, this would not really solve the fiscal imbalance.

As everyone knows, Ottawa taxes too much.

Under the previous Government, billions upon billions of dollars were taken from Canadians through over-taxation – nothing more, nothing less – to fund large and often hidden federal surpluses.

In the last decade, roughly 100 billions of dollars in "unexpected" surpluses poured into Ottawa.

Some of this money did go to pay down debt, but much of it went to off-budget, unplanned and poorly thought out spending, including literally billions in well know examples of waste, mismanagement and scandal.

Left in the hands of Canadians that money could have helped:

  • Parents buy clothing and school supplies for their children,
  • Small and medium-sized business owners to further invest in their operations, thereby creating new jobs, or,
  • (helped) provide some much-needed financial breathing space for cash-strapped seniors and students. 

Simply put, this money would have gone a long way to helping out all Canadians. 

That is why we will cut taxes in the upcoming federal Budget.

And we will cut taxes for everyone by starting with a one percent cut to the GST.

The rich, the poor, and everyone in between. Those who voted for the Bloc, the NDP, the Liberals or the Conservatives.

Not to mention those who were too young to vote but old enough to consume.

There is also a fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and every taxpayer in the country.

And we will address this by cutting taxes during our mandate – not just the GST, but personal taxes, business taxes, capital gains taxes – the full range of tax reductions that are need to benefit all Canadians and Canadian business.

Fiscal imbalance

But I do want to return for a moment to the issue that I know has special interest for Quebecers, and that is the fiscal imbalance between the levels of government.

It’s not the easiest priority we could have chosen.

But we can no longer allow ourselves, as a country and as a society, to simply bury our heads in the sand and let the problem fester.

As you know, we – unlike the federal Liberals – recognize the existence of a fiscal imbalance.

  • Because it is a real problem.

Fiscal imbalance impacts almost all Canadian provinces and municipalities

  • and is a threat to the proper functioning of the Canadian federation.

When one level of government rolls enjoys big surpluses despite bad management and the others struggle to pay for core services without going into debt, the issue must be addressed.

But here in Quebec, fiscal imbalance has attained a significant importance.

It is used by those who allege that federation is detrimental to Quebec’s interests.

This squabbling has kept the Bloc alive … artificially.

But under the new approach to federalism that I’m proposing, Quebec will have its place.

And the Bloc?… Not so much.

Because, let me be clear, we will develop specific proposals for the fiscal imbalance over the next year. And let me tell you what those proposals will not include: they will not include increasing federal spending in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

Your new national government will respect the Canadian constitution.

No proposal goes through our federal Cabinet unless we are assured it respects the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments.

Open federalism and national leadership

Which leads me to our government’s view of federalism – open federalism.

One of Canada’s greatest strengths is its federal system of government.

The founders of our country had the foresight to build a flexible federal system that would accommodate our diversity and be a source of strength and innovation.

Open federalism means benefiting from the experience and expertise that the provinces and territories can bring to the national dialogue.

Open federalism means respecting areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Open federalism means limiting the use of the federal spending power, which the federal Liberals abused – much to the dismay of all hard-working, tax-paying Canadians.

Open federalism means establishing a formal mechanism for provincial input into the development of the Canadian position in international negotiations or organizations where provincial jurisdiction is affected.

Open federalism represents an opportunity to free Quebec from the trap  of polarization.

Open federalism means inviting Quebec to take part in UNESCO.

Nowhere is the need to turn the page in Quebec more evident than on the issue of Quebec at UNESCO.

For Liberals – and here I can quote leadership candidates like Joe Volpe and Michael Ignatieff – the mere thought of Quebec having any role in UNESCO is a threat to the very existence of Canada.

And for the Bloc anything short of Quebec being unable to veto the position of Canada at UNESCO is the humiliation of Quebec.

These extreme positions attempt to undermine what is simply a common-sense arrangement – to give Quebec an enhanced and cooperative role in an organization where its unique linguistic and cultural concerns may be at stake.

That’s what open federalism is all about – a stronger Quebec in a better Canada – and that is what this new national government intends to deliver.

Open federalism does not seek to play favourites or stir up jealousies.

The time has come to establish a new relationship with the provinces – a relationship that is open, honest, respectful.

There are those who want to turn the clock back - back to polarization, confrontation, corruption.

That’s not what open federalism is about.

It is about collaboration – with every level of government – and being clear about who does what and who is accountable for it.

It is about matching resources with responsibilities

It means looking forward to what we can accomplish together.


Ladies and gentlemen, as we go along there will be the occasional disagreement and disappointment, as is only natural in all federations.

But reasonable and honourable solutions are within our grasp.

Canada’s new government has a new philosophy and a new attitude.

We are ready to begin a new era for those who want to move on, in a Canada  that is strong, united, independent and free with a Quebec that is confident, autonomous and proud, and has a strong sense of solidarity.

The political debate in Quebec has been polarized for nearly two generations.

It has poisoned the federation and pitted centralisers and separatists in a fight where neither will win and neither will give up.

But, mark my words, Quebecers want to move on, and so does your new, national government.

We are turning the page and looking to the future with confidence.

I have trust in Canadians to take care of their kids and spend their money.

I have trust in our leadership in the world, which we’re seeing in Afghanistan.

I have trust in my team of ministers and MPs, to provide clean, focused, efficient government.

And I have trust in open federalism, because it can marry Quebec’s development with that of Canada.

Thank you very much, and I hope to see you soon.