Federal-provincial relations redux?
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.