Fed­eral-pro­vin­cial re­la­tions re­dux?

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY PETER MCKENNA

With a chang­ing of the political guard in Ottawa, one won­ders whether things have re­ally changed in terms of in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal re­la­tions in Canada? The short an­swer is: not re­ally.

Still, rookie fed­eral Fi­nance Min­is­ter, Bill Morneau, was quick to say in early De­cem­ber, with all the pro­vin­cial fi­nance min­is­ters stand­ing be­hind him, that Canada was now en­ter­ing into a new era of fed­eral-pro­vin­cial re­la­tions. Time will tell, of course.

Yes, it’s true that things have changed from the Stephen Harper pe­riod — when pro­vin­cial fi­nance min­is­ters would show up in Ottawa and be told that their trans­fer pay­ment pack­ets have been al­tered be­fore the meet­ing ac­tu­ally be­gan. No need for any dis­cus­sion. Thanks for com­ing.

And it’s also true that the tone of govern­ment-to-govern­ment re­la­tions has changed un­der the “sunny ways” of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau. But that could eas­ily change as both lev­els of govern­ment be­gin to tackle some of the more chal­leng­ing in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal is­sues like cli­mate change emis­sion re­duc­tions, re­form­ing the health care port­fo­lio, tin­ker­ing with the Equal­iza­tion Pro­gram and dis­pens­ing with in­fra­struc­ture cash.

Fur­ther­more, Mr. Trudeau has the added ad­van­tage of hav­ing most of the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments in Canada hail from ei­ther Lib­eral or NDP par­ties.

The fact of the mat­ter is that there are cer­tain “rules of the game” — ir­re­spec­tive of which party is in power in Ottawa — when it comes to fed­eral-pro­vin­cial re­la­tions in Canada. First, and ar­guably most im­por­tant, pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments don’t have friends at other gov­ern­men­tal lev­els; they have in­ter­ests, con­sti­tu­tional turf, and agen­das that each wants to ad­vance or pro­tect.

Se­condly, var­i­ous provinces are con­stantly on guard for any (real or imag­ined) ju­ris­dic­tional breaches, in­ad­ver­tent con­sti­tu­tional in­tru­sions or fed­eral sleight of hand. Trans­la­tion: don’t tell us how to spend fed­eral health care dol­lars; just show us the money — and don’t even think about at­tach­ing any ac­count­abil­ity or con­di­tion­al­ity.

Thirdly, the provinces are re­lent­less when it comes to push­ing the en­ve­lope on mat­ters of for­eign pol­icy or in­ter­na­tional affairs. If you open up the door just a bit, pre­miers will try to kick it in. Wit­ness their un­yield­ing wran­gling to be at the ta­ble where in­ter­na­tional trade ne­go­ti­a­tions take place - like those in­volv­ing the Euro­pean Union (EU). Get­ting them all to agree — as tough ne­go­ti­a­tions over fu­ture green­house gas (GHGs) re­duc­tions will show — is an­other mat­ter en­tirely, and of­ten detri­men­tal to Canada’s over­all global bar­gain­ing po­si­tion.

Fourthly, pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments will in­vari­ably have their palms ex­tended for more greas­ing. As the past has shown in in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal re­la­tions in Canada, provinces are never sat­is­fied with the amount of fund­ing or cash em­a­nat­ing from Ottawa. To them, more is al­ways the an­swer.

A word to the wise: the new Lib­eral govern­ment in Ottawa should think long and hard be­fore open­ing up the com­pli­cated for­mula for Canada’s Equal­iza­tion Pro­gram. For un­der the guise of tin­ker­ing (say tak­ing into ac­count the ag­ing pop­u­la­tions of provinces in At­lantic Canada or Que­bec), other pre­miers will be un­able to re­sist an op­por­tu­nity to press for their own unique set of fis­cal cir­cum­stances to be ad­dressed.

So while I ac­knowl­edge that the tone has changed and a friendly Trudeau hand has been ex­tended to the provinces, a promis­ing start should not be mis­con­strued as the on­set of never-end­ing “co­op­er­a­tive fed­er­al­ism.” As Pierre El­liott Trudeau him­self also dis­cov­ered later on, the provinces in Canada will never be sat­is­fied or pla­cated.

That isn’t to sug­gest that Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau shouldn’t try to get along with the pre­miers or even to meet with them as a whole once or twice a year. But he should re­mem­ber that, in many ways, they are ad­ver­saries and op­por­tunists al­ways on the prowl for seek­ing political ad­van­tage.

And he should not shy away from ad­vanc­ing the “na­tional” in­ter­est (even at the ex­pense of the provinces) — and ditch­ing his sunny ways — to lay down the law to the var­i­ous pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments in Canada. Peter McKenna is pro­fes­sor and chair of political sci­ence at the Univer­sity

of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

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