John Ivison: Any unity at First Ministers’ Meeting will come in opposition to Trudeau
|National Post 06 Dec 2018 at 15:44|
Trying to explain to a Chinese diplomat this week why this country cannot build an oil pipeline to saltwater when it is so obviously in the national interest was instructive. Coming from a country that re-located 1.2 million people to build the Three Gorges Dam, to them it simply did not compute.
But the division of powers between federal and provincial governments was deemed by the Fathers of Confederation to be the only way to keep such a far-flung country united, even if it meant subverting the national interest to the local.
Canada is a country fashioned and frustrated by its geography but it has just about worked. The trick, as former NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp once quipped, is to find the thread that unites the pearls.
Yet Justin Trudeau is likely to search in vain for such common purpose at the First Ministers’ Meeting he is hosting Friday in Montreal.
How different from the halcyon days just after the Liberals were elected, when the prime minister was able to stand at a microphone, flanked by 11 provincial and territorial premiers, and talk about the “united Canada” that would attend the Paris conference on climate change.
Any unity on show in Montreal will be 100-per-cent in opposition to him and all his works.
The 2015 meeting was another era, when the provincial premiers included six Liberals and two New Democrats. There are still four Liberal premiers but they represent Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Yukon — representing less than 5 per cent of the country’s population.
Trudeau must yearn for the days when premiers came to Ottawa to kowtow in the hope some of the public’s adoration might rub off on them.
The amazing thing was that, for a brief moment in time, anything was possible in the Canadian confederation.
The premiers, under pressure to hold the government to account, are in resistance mode
In their platform, the Liberals had promised to reverse the Harper government’s decision to negotiate with provinces and territories to enhance the Canada Pension Plan.
Finance minister Bill Morneau said he hoped he could reach some kind of agreement with seven of the 10 provinces, representing two-thirds of the population.
Few gave him much chance to make the first changes in the program’s 50-year history, previous attempts at reform having ended in stalemate. Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Quebec had all expressed reservations about a mandatory increase to CPP contributions, while Ontario had already introduced its own planned enhancement, the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. Yet by late June 2016, Morneau had convinced every provinces except Quebec and Manitoba to sign on to a new CPP deal that increased premiums and raised the amount of benefit available.
He was aided by the close relationship with Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government, which said it would abandon its own plans for a pension enhancement in Ontario if there were a national alternative. That concentrated the minds of the finance ministers around the table and they were finally persuaded when Morneau proposed to hike the Working Income Tax Benefit for lower earners to cover any increase in premiums.
There are obviously pros and cons to the CPP expansion — critics point out that increased premiums will cost jobs. But as Dr. Samuel Johnson observed on seeing a dog walking on its hind legs, “it’s not done well but one is surprised to see it done at all.”
The unusual occurrence of a provincial political map where so many of the key players were essentially client states of the federal government is long ago and far away.
Trudeau wants to use the occasion of his fourth First Ministers’ Meeting to roll out Morneau to recite the Liberal government’s greatest hits on unemployment and growth rates.
The premiers, under pressure to hold the government to account, are in resistance mode. Even an erstwhile ally, Alberta’s Rachel Notley, has told Trudeau to “cut the fluff,” so they can get down to business on the crisis facing her province. “We don’t need to waste time for people to take some kind of self-congratulatory victory lap,” she said.
Ontario’s Doug Ford is apparently prepared to walk out of the meeting if it doesn’t specifically deal with Trudeau’s proposal on the carbon tax.
In their meeting Thursday, Ford talked about the “job-killing carbon tax” and the cost of “illegal border crossing,” while paying lip-service to “working collaboratively.”
Saskatchewan premier Scott Moe, another carbon tax opponent, joked he knows where the exits are in the Montreal hotel hosting the meeting because as the province’s environment minister he walked out of the same room when Ottawa unveiled its national climate plan in 2016.
Trudeau must yearn for the days when premiers came to Ottawa to kowtow
The mood of Manitoba’s Brian Pallister and New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs — both Conservatives — is similarly truculent.
The carbon tax, the environmental assessment bill C-69, the west-coast tanker ban and border issues around asylum seekers are just four of the federal government’s policies that provinces would like to see reversed or amended.
Canada’s constitution means that regional chauvinism often comes to the fore on these occasions.
But this is an unusually cantankerous bunch of premiers, who feel the human cost of the Trudeau government’s policies is not registering in Ottawa.
This would appear to be a good time for Trudeau to tone down the finger-wagging and dial up the empathy.
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