The result has been the creation of two concepts whose very existence is often doubted: the "fiscal imbalance", wherein the provinces contribute more to the federal treasury than they get back, and the "federal spending power", the quasi-constitutional authority under which the federal government gets the provinces in line on health and education by controlling top-up funds.
Fixing the problem takes us right back to constitutional debate, and it's good that Stephen Harper isn't afraid to touch the issue that others have shrunk from since Meech Lake and Charlottetown collapsed:
While he promised to stop short of the ambitious, tumultuous Meech Lake project of former prime minister Brian Mulroney, Harper said the do-nothing constitutional era of the former Liberal government is about to end. "We will go step by step," Harper told reporters after speaking to nearly 2,000 business leaders in Montreal.
"We have the intention of limiting our power, if such a power exists," Harper said. "My preference is to have a formal limitation on this power.
"We're not talking today, we're not talking yet, about constitutional amendments, but my position is known."
Harper's plan to stay out of areas of provincial responsibility is part of a package of policies that have special appeal in Quebec, the province that may hold the key to a future Conservative majority government.
In his speech to the Montreal Board of Trade, Harper promised a new era of openness that will include a Quebec that is "autonomous."
Harper later said every province should be autonomous in a federation like Canada.
Harper also promised to start addressing the so-called fiscal imbalance within the year. The provinces have long argued that Ottawa is collecting billions in tax dollars that should go to the provincial capitals instead, although each province has its own idea of how this imbalance should be corrected.
"We will present specific proposals on the fiscal imbalance, and let me tell you what they won't include: a hike in federal spending in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction," he said.
This is the best way to tackle constitutional reform: no grand projects, no special status clauses, just straightforward solutions to current problems. This will get all the provinces on side--especially Quebec, which has yet to sign the 1982 Constitution Act, but which acts as if it had.
Get agreement on this issue, and other more contentious ones can be dealt with later.
A sensible balance between grand schemes and doing nothing.