First Min­is­ters Con­fer­ences the purest theatre

Regina Leader-Post - - NP - AN­DREW COYNE Com­ment

What is the point of a First Min­is­ters Con­fer­ence? There is no ac­tual ne­ces­sity for them, you un­der­stand. The fed­eral and pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments are quite able to func­tion within their re­spec­tive ju­ris­dic­tions with­out their lead­ers dashing off across the coun­try at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals to quiver their jowls at each other. The first such meet­ing was not held un­til 1906. Just 10 more “do­min­ion-pro­vin­cial con­fer­ences” oc­curred over the next 40 years. Not un­til the 1950s did they be­come the semi-an­nual af­fairs we know to­day. That this was also when the TV cam­eras ar­rived is pos­si­bly not co­in­ci­den­tal.

If there were ac­tual busi­ness to trans­act, it could just as eas­ily be ar­ranged by sub­or­di­nates, or over the phone, or via video-con­fer­ence. Or if an is­sue were so thorny that it gen­uinely re­quired a fleshly first-min­is­te­rial en­counter, the prime minister could al­ways meet bi­lat­er­ally with the premier or premiers in­volved, as Stephen Harper did.

But a full-on, cap­i­tal-f First Min­is­ters Con­fer­ence, of­fi­cial cars, flag-backed lecterns and all? There is in­vari­ably but one pur­pose to these: for the 10 premiers to cor­ner and ha­rass the prime minister, us­ing the im­bal­ance in their num­bers to de­pict the feds as the out­lier. Some­times this is in fur­ther­ance of the premiers’ peren­nial cam­paign for more fed­eral cash. Some­times, as in the cur­rent ex­er­cise, the point seems to be con­flict for con­flict’s sake. But al­ways — al­ways — it is theatre.

Only it is theatre of a pe­cu­liar kind: with the cur­tains drawn and the sound down, the au­di­ence be­ing in­stead en­ter­tained by pe­ri­odic re­ports from agents for each of the ac­tors about who said what. Thus the breath­less dis­patches from re­porters or­bit­ing the con­fer­ence — they are kept well away from the ac­tual meet­ing room — ev­ery line of it orig­i­nat­ing from sources, fed­eral or pro­vin­cial, with a pro­fes­sional in­ter­est in puff­ing one leader or the other.

The ef­fect is rather like read­ing the notes we used to pass in home­room. Bill Morneau spoke too long! Ev­ery­one was so em­bar­rassed! But Catherine Mckenna did not! Ooh, did Doug Ford ever get schooled by Justin Trudeau! No, wait: the premier of New Brunswick just in­ter­rupted the fi­nance minister! Much pre-con­fer­ence spec­u­la­tion at­tached to which premier might storm out of the con­fer­ence on what pre­text.

In the end, none did, but not be­fore a lot of heavy breath­ing over the sup­posed “ten­sion” and “ac­ri­mony” said to ex­ist be­tween the par­tic­i­pants. For which we will have to take ev­ery­one’s word for it, the of­fi­cials in­side the room and the re­porters with­out, each with their own in­ter­est in pre­tend­ing the emo­tions the lead­ers are paid to pan­tomime are real. We will have to take their word for it, be­cause the meet­ings are held in pri­vate.

A First Min­is­ters Con­fer­ence held in front of the cam­eras would be theatre, but use­ful theatre: as in ques­tion pe­riod, or the tele­vised elec­tion de­bates, there is some­times some­thing to be learned from di­rect pub­lic en­coun­ters be­tween po­lit­i­cal ri­vals, when they are un­der pres­sure and (at least some­what) off script. Re­call Pierre Trudeau’s seem­ingly spon­ta­neous chal­lenge to René Lévesque, at the Novem­ber 1981 First Min­is­ters Con­fer­ence on pa­tri­a­tion, that they set­tle their dif­fer­ences via a na­tion­wide ref­er­en­dum, and Levesque’s in­stant ac­cep­tance: all of it tele­vised.

That was a con­fer­ence with a real agenda, of course, and real stakes. (I dare say there was also some gen­uine emo­tion.) Com­pare that to the ut­ter con­trivance of this week’s in­stal­ment.

The orig­i­nal agenda for the con­fer­ence was meaty enough: the elim­i­na­tion of in­ter­provin­cial trade bar­ri­ers. Of course, if fed­eral-pro­vin­cial con­fer­ences were likely to achieve this, the eco­nomic union would have been com­pleted long ago. Sooner or later it will dawn on peo­ple that leav­ing in­ter­nal free trade to in­ter­provin­cial ne­go­ti­a­tions is the prob­lem, not the so­lu­tion: the very at­tempt only en­cour­ages the idea that the prov­inces are not part of a larger whole, with an over­ar­ch­ing na­tional in­ter­est to which they are obliged to de­fer, but lit­tle coun­tries whose pop­u­la­tions are as alien to one an­other as those of sovereign states.

Any­way. If the premiers were of a mind to get rid of the trade bar­ri­ers they have so care­fully pre­served un­til now, they could have done so in a day. It would have made for a mem­o­rable meet­ing. But as they had no wish to do any­thing of the kind, they col­lec­tively changed the sub­ject, de­mand­ing any num­ber of other is­sues be put on the agenda — all of them, as it hap­pened, mat­ters of fed­eral ju­ris­dic­tion.

So rather than dis­cuss things over which they have some control, and there­fore some re­spon­si­bil­ity, the premiers de­manded the meet­ing be given over to ha­rangu­ing the feds for their fail­ure to ar­range their own af­fairs in a man­ner the premiers might prefer: pipe­lines, Bill C-69, steel tar­iffs, refugee pol­icy and of course the fed­eral car­bon tax. The like­li­hood that any­thing con­struc­tive would be ac­com­plished on any of these was al­ways near zero.

The premiers are en­ti­tled to their opin­ion, of course, and the Trudeau gov­ern­ment richly de­serves to be crit­i­cized on all those fronts and more. Only the premiers are not elected to scru­ti­nize fed­eral af­fairs: that’s what we elect a Par­lia­ment for. It is to the House of Com­mons the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is ac­count­able, not the premiers.

Away with these preen­fests, then. If there is some ur­gent pub­lic mat­ter re­quir­ing the first min­is­ters to convene, fine. Other­wise, hold them in pub­lic or hold them not at all.


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