OTTAWA - In Canada's fiscal Olympics, large equalization payments constitute the brass, tin and lead medals. They recognize and reward persistent policy failure lasting decades.
Quebec, most of the Atlantic provinces and Manitoba now find themselves fighting Ontario for ownership of the podium.
Since 1957, the program has been handing out money to provinces that have trouble raising tax revenue from sluggish economies.
Quebec has been the biggest loser, collecting money every single year, collecting the most money every year and getting half of all the loot since the very beginning.
But Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have cashed a cheque every year as well. So has Manitoba, which can also claim the dubious distinction of finishing second to Quebec in the fiscal loser standings almost every year.
Newfoundland, on the other hand, embraced the oil industry and weaned itself in 2008 after 51 straight years taking subsidies.
B.C. can congratulate itself on having graduated early from the program, in 1962, suffering a relapse early in the last decade and then kicking the habit a year before Newfoundland.
Meanwhile, Dalton McGuinty's Ontario, whose main industry these days seems to be red ink, must wear the shame of going from Canada's economic powerhouse to a collector of interprovincial pogey from formerly impoverished cousins like Saskatchewan, the other major success story. And it is shameful.
Supposedly equalization exists to promote fairness and protect citizens from a disastrous collapse in public services if a given provincial government experiences financial disaster.
It wasn't a totally irrational response to bad memories of near-disaster in the Prairie provinces, including Alberta, during the Great Depression.
Heavily dependent on agriculture, with fragile economies and treasuries, they were clobbered by the Dirty Thirties. But while almost any province can have a few bad years, there's no way around the fact that if a province is on the dole for decades, it's a mark of failure.
Whatever its goals, in practice equalization cuts a fat cheque for politicians and voters who make bad economic policy decisions, and takes money back from those who make the tough choices -- from cutting taxes to staring down public sector unions -- that unleash the creative potential of citizens.
Indeed, compare who's up and who's down in the equalization standings with provincial government policies over the years and an ominous pattern emerges.
Quebec, for starters, has been obsessed since the Quiet Revolution with being maîtres chez nous, a phrase that in that province's public debate means high taxes, burdensome regulation and a major government role in investment. Result? Sub-par performance the whole way.
The Atlantic provinces, too, have relied on high taxes, heavy regulation and a refusal to let failing industries go and adapt to new conditions and dynamic new ways of making a living -- aided and abetted by the feds rigging employment insurance to pour money into precisely those firms unable to offer steady work at good pay without endless subsidies. Now look to the West. Alberta took equalization money for the first eight years. But consistent small-government, low-tax policies produced rapid growth and it hasn't pocketed a dime since 1964.
By contrast, Tommy Douglas's home province of Saskatchewan went the big government route and despite a few oil-boom years without payments in the late 1970s and early 1980s, got money steadily until Brad Wall's free-enterprise Saskatchewan Party took over five years ago.
Meanwhile, Social Credit governments got B.C. off the program early, in 1962, and kept it off until voters opted for a big-spending, meddlesome NDP twice in the 1990s and the province needed help from its neighbours for nearly a decade afterward.
Then there's Ontario. Industrial powerhouse and fiscal mainstay of Confederation for decades, the one-two punch of Bob Rae's NDP in the 1990s and Dalton McGuinty's spendthrift Liberals since 2003, despite modest restraint under the Harris Tories in between, turned it into the second-largest recipient of subsidies.
It is hardly coincidence. When it comes to sound policy, equalization isn't even a participation medal. It's the mark of failure, the brass, tin or lead gong that says you can't even recognize a mistake when you make one over and over again. The numbers don't lie.