Rex Murphy: In this Confederation, it’s the premiers who are the adults in the room

Rex Murphy: In this Confederation, it’s the premiers who are the adults in the room
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It is a more than fair observation that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is getting a full harvest yield of press attention, his leadership questioned and headlined with an uncommon lavishness. And while I agree leadership has its tolls, fair and unfair, and have written so, it more than seems that Justin Trudeau, who lost a majority and opened two fronts of separatism, and Jagmeet Singh, who cleaved NDP parliamentarians of his party in half, and Elizabeth May, who after 13 years of leading the Greens now presides over a mighty caucus of three (she being one of the trinity), can each challenge Mr. Scheer for ineffectuality, slack campaigning, and questionable competence.

All that is in the spirit of let’s be fair. What received reasonable coverage this week was the meeting of the premiers, and most particularly the presence of three Conservative allies — Messrs. Doug Ford, Scott Moe and Jason Kenney — in global-warming-sleet-and-snow-wracked Toronto.

What I first observe in various press interactions with these three — it’s probably a curious word in this context — is their seriousness. They are undoubtedly pitching their provinces’ particular concerns but don’t stop there. They all display a concern for joint endeavour and common ground. They speak their various worries, without alarmism, about the current state of the country.

They all display a concern for joint endeavour and common ground

It is they — and here I come back indirectly to Scheer, but not to swipe at him — who are now constituting the actual “countervailing power” (an emblematic notion of Pierre Trudeau) to the present minority Liberal government. (It is worthwhile even after all the years that have passed since its 1968 publication to re-read Pierre Trudeau’s essays in Federalism and the French Canadians.)

It is premiers, particularly Ford, Kenney and Moe, who are presenting a present-day agenda, who are warning that an Ottawa-fixated, “social-justice”-oriented, identity-politics-absorbed government is badly, perilously, out of touch with the real dilemmas of Confederation. They do not speak in bumper sticker sentences. They are, to coin a phrase, the adults in the room.

In raising the possibility of adding more nuclear power to the country’s energy mix, they are also guilty of introducing a new idea into the infinitely tedious global-warming debate. The folks who tell us everyone is going to die, the planet wrecked unless “we do something” will now have a chance to praise something someone is doing. I’d bet a small Prius they won’t, it being characteristic of the climate crowd that they only want to put off Armageddon if it’s done their way. Zero-emissions nuclear, though the near-perfect solution, and technologically feasible now, is a stench in their puritanical nostrils.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe listens during a news conference following a premiers’ meeting in Toronto on Dec. 2, 2019. Cole Burston/Bloomberg

What else has been remarkable in the month following the election? Two things really. That Parliament hasn’t met, and that the ubiquitous, conspicuous prime minister we knew from his first term, has adopted the habits of a people-shunning hermit. Where has he been? Save this week, while he has been at the NATO meeting in London, Mr. T has disappeared from the skyline.

He has been a phantom. The rifts and divisions that the election revealed or reinvigorated, many of which flowed from his inattention to the “unimportant” provinces, have passed uncommented from the country’s leader. And it is into this unwonted and curious vacuum that the three leading premiers have wandered.

As said, they have their provincial needs and priorities, and they promote them. But in our Confederation, provincial needs and priorities, when common or shared by a number of provinces, have a way of being national needs and priorities. Access to markets for oil or potash is not a Prairie problem, it is a problem for the Canadian economy. Likewise anger and disenchantment in the West — now set in ricochet against resurgent Quebec separatism, is a problem for all of us.

The premiers, on many issues, are co-stewards of the country and Confederation. The less a prime minister actually leads, the more their presence and voices have power. Trudeau’s second minority term has a fresh and challenging new dynamic.

In our Confederation, provincial needs and priorities … have a way of being national needs and priorities

It is not in question period that it will face its test. Not, or not just, from the official opposition. It must deal with Premier Kenney and answer his contention that unless Ottawa unfreezes its obsessional kabuki with global warming, and comes to actually learn — to feel — the displacement his policies have caused Alberta, that Canada as a country has a real problem. It is not “alienation” that troubles Alberta. That’s a hollow, therapeutic term. It’s the much simpler idea of lack of respect; the sense of superiority emanating from the centre, and treating a whole province as if it was a municipal backwater.

Premier Moe exerts a similar force. On the carbon tax, freeing up exports and on equalization, he is asserting his province’s place — too long a subsidiary one — at the national table.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, third from right, speaks during a news conference following a premiers’ meeting in Toronto on Dec. 2, 2019. Cole Burston/Bloomberg

And here was Ford: “We have to find common ground and support our friends out West,” he told reporters. “We have to calm the temperature, lower the temperature and again, stick together as a country.” And: “We may have our differences, but Canada is united. … And as you’ve seen at this meeting, when some of the provinces are struggling, we’re all there. We’re going to be there. We support them. We’ve got their back.”

This is a good thing. While the federal Tories, of their own design or from the framing of their critics, have, for now, a wounded leadership, there is an alternate and serious opposition from outside the Commons, as Canadian premiers begin to reoccupy their rightful standing in the management of the country.

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