Fresh pur­pose

For Canada’s pre­miers, the en­emy is no longer just our­selves — it’s the U.S. pres­i­dent

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY MARTIN REGG COHN Martin Regg Cohn is a na­tional af­fairs writer for Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn

Pre­miers rarely get much at­ten­tion or trac­tion when they meet ev­ery year to save the coun­try from it­self.

This week may be dif­fer­ent, be­cause the pre­miers have seen the en­emy — and it is no longer just our­selves. Now there’s Don­ald Trump.

The U.S. pres­i­dent has given the pre­miers new pur­pose. The re­lease of his up­dated NAFTA ne­go­ti­at­ing agenda Mon­day is fo­cus­ing pro­vin­cial minds on a big­ger tar­get south of the bor­der. Meet­ing in Ed­mon­ton on Tues­day and Wednes­day, the pre­miers will have bet­ter things to do than bash Ot­tawa as they cus­tom­ar­ily do. Re­born and re­branded as the por­ten­tous Coun­cil of the Fed­er­a­tion in 2003, the an­nual pre­miers’ con­fer­ence has long served as a coun­ter­weight to Ot­tawa.

But a coun­ter­weight can also be dead weight, not heft. These days, the pre­miers have no real role as a coun­ter­vail­ing force against a force­ful fed­eral gov­ern­ment, for it is the threat of coun­ter­vail­ing du­ties on Cana­dian soft­wood lum­ber, and the spec­tre of Buy Amer­ica pro­grams, that weighs heav­ier on the coun­try.

No longer rebels with­out a cause, the pre­miers are mak­ing com­mon cause in forg­ing and re­in­forc­ing links with Amer­i­can gov­er­nors. On­tario’s Kath­leen Wynne showed up at a meet­ing of U.S. gov­er­nors in Rhode Is­land last week, mak­ing the case that On­tario is the best or sec­ond-best cus­tomer for twothirds of Amer­i­can states.

Wynne has been court­ing her coun­ter­parts since be­com­ing premier — among them In­di­ana’s then-gover­nor, Mike Pence, on his 2014 trip to Toronto. Now Trump’s vi­cepres­i­dent, Pence spoke to his erst­while gu­ber­na­to­rial col­leagues at their sum­mit last week with Wynne in at­ten­dance, doubt­less mind­ful of the trade links he cham­pi­oned when he led that In­di­ana trade del­e­ga­tion to On­tario.

This week in Ed­mon­ton, Wynne will brief her fel­low pre­miers on all those bi­lat­eral talks with Amer­i­can gov­er­nors. Yet the pre­miers are acutely aware that in the high stakes NAFTA ne­go­ti­a­tions ahead, they re­main bit play­ers lim­ited to lob­by­ing from the side­lines and tele­phone lines as Amer­i­can de­ci­sion mak­ers take their seats at the bar­gain­ing ta­ble.

That’s why the prov­inces can­not al­low fears over free trade to crowd out other agenda items where they have a cen­tral role to play. For while they are con­strained from mak­ing the fi­nal de­ci­sions on trade, they are the front line de­ci­sion mak­ers in other ar­eas that mat­ter just as much to Cana­di­ans.

At last year’s meet­ing in Yukon, they were able to cel­e­brate the sig­nal achieve­ment of an ex­panded Canada Pen­sion Plan. Wynne forced re­tire­ment se­cu­rity onto the agenda with her pro­posed On­tario Re­tire­ment Pen­sion Plan, which set a mid-2016 dead­line for a de­ci­sion be­fore the prov­ince went its own way. The Trudeau Lib­er­als lever­aged that time­line to win a his­toric com­pro­mise from the other prov­inces, ob­vi­at­ing the need for an On­tario only pen­sion.

Now, Wynne has the op­por­tu­nity to push the en­ve­lope fur­ther yet again, this time with her pro­posed phar­ma­care plan set to take ef­fect next Jan­uary for peo­ple up to age 25. On­tario has been push­ing for a na­tional phar­ma­care plan for years, ar­gu­ing not only for so­cial eq­uity and de­cency, but fis­cal ef­fi­ciency and raw pur­chas­ing power.

All the ben­e­fits that ac­crue to the pro­vin­cial trea­sury from a sin­gle-payer drug plan can gen­er­ate even greater economies of scale with full na­tional im­ple­men­ta­tion.

Be­yond the hu­man­ity of en­sur­ing that pa­tients can fill their doc­tors’ pre­scrip­tions with­out wor­ry­ing about where the money will come from — es­pe­cially in an era of pre­car­i­ous em­ploy­ment and the un­cer­tainty of work­place ben­e­fit plans — a na­tional pro­gram cov­er­ing all age groups would gen­er­ate huge sav­ings from bulk buy­ing of phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals for which we now over­pay.

Just as they up­dated the CPP last year, 60 years af­ter its in­cep­tion, our lead­ers must mod­ern­ize uni­ver­sal medi­care by adding free medicine to the uni­ver­sal cov­er­age first con­ceived six decades ago.

The onus is on Ot­tawa to sup­port free pre­scrip­tion drugs for all, but there is an op­por­tu­nity for pro­vin­cial pre­miers to lead the way to­day, just as they once did on pen­sions and medi­care.

Pro­tec­tion­ist bar­ri­ers to trade at home and abroad are worth tack­ling, to the ex­tent that our politi­cians can win friends and in­flu­ence gov­er­nors. But per­sis­tent bar­ri­ers to medi­care and medicine closer to home can­not be for­saken in Ed­mon­ton, or the pre­miers’ work will soon be for­got­ten.

CP PHOTO/JA­SON FRAN­SON

Cana­dian pre­miers from back left, Bob McLeod, North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, Philippe Couil­lard, Que­bec, Brian Gal­lant, New Brunswick, Brian Pal­lis­ter, Man­i­toba, Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia, Dwight Ball, New­found­land and Labrador, Sandy Sil­ver, Yukon, Wade MacLauch­lan, Prince Ed­ward Is­land, Kath­leen Wynne, On­tario, Brad Wall, Saskatchewan, Rachel Not­ley, Al­berta and Pe­ter Tap­tuna, Nu­navut, pose for a group photo dur­ing the Coun­cil of Fed­er­a­tion meet­ings in Ed­mon­ton, Alta., on Tues­day.

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