The Hamilton Spectator

Liberal/NDP partnershi­p will be tested


With the dust settling on the first ministers’ long awaited health-care meeting, it is clear that federal efforts to dampen expectatio­ns as to its outcome were justified.

In the end, the word “offer” to describe the funding plan the prime minister put to the premiers last Tuesday turned out to be a misnomer.

What happened last week was no more a federal-provincial negotiatio­n than back when Stephen Harper unilateral­ly set the terms of the health transfer that have endured until this week. The main difference between the two prime ministers’ approaches boiled down to Trudeau’s decision to reveal his intentions in a face-to-face meeting, rather than via a news release.

With polls showing a solid majority of Canadians believe the burden of fixing the health-care system is essentiall­y a provincial one, the premiers’ longstandi­ng attempts to put more of the onus on the federal government don’t seem to have hit the mark.

Trudeau’s plan may have received mixed reviews in the provinces and among healthcare stakeholde­rs, but the reaction was noticeably more positive among economic watchers. In financial circles, many breathed a sigh of relief at the relative modesty of the new funding Trudeau has put on the table.

A boost in health-care spending was always expected to be one of the main items of Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland’s next budget.

If the restraint that was on exhibit at the health-care table is a harbinger of that budget, it may turn out — much like the prime minister’s health plan — to be more prudent than ambitious.

If they are to be competitiv­e against the Conservati­ves in the next election, the Liberals need to shore up their economic credential­s. Trudeau’s conservati­ve approach to health-care funding could translate into a decisively more fiscally conservati­ve budget. But that could yet put their minority government on a politicall­y unsustaina­ble course in Parliament.

At the very least, the LiberalNDP partnershi­p that is designed to keep Trudeau in office until 2025 looks like it is headed for rocky times.

At week’s end, the most vocal critic of Trudeau’s proposal to the provinces has turned out to be his partner in the current Parliament.

By comparison to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the premiers, even as they expressed their collective disappoint­ment at not being offered more money, sounded remarkably at peace with the situation. But then, Singh was left with very little to show for the influence that is supposed to attend his caucus’s non-aggression pact with the minority Liberals.

He had called on Trudeau to draw a red line on the contractin­g out of surgeries to for-profit clinics. But according to provincial sources, the prime minister spent little or no time dwelling on the issue.

To add insult to injury, the New Democrats’ top demand of a national pharmacare program did not rate a mention in the first ministers’ list of priorities. That left the Conservati­ves as the only opposition party that found something to like about the turn of events at the first ministers’ table.

In the lead-up to the meeting, the Conservati­ves had kept their powder dry. They had studiously avoided coming out in support of the provincial demands for a steep hike in funding. Should he become prime minister, Pierre Poilievre now says he would live by the terms set out by Trudeau.

The Conservati­ves have no interest in fighting the Liberals on the health-care battlefiel­d in the next election campaign. Their leader’s stance essentiall­y neutralize­s an issue that has never been a winning one for his party.

But for all that, no one expects Poilievre to support the upcoming budget and the Bloc Québécois is unlikely to come to the rescue of the Liberal government.

If the modest funding put forward for health care is a taste of things to come on the fiscal side, Freeland’s second budget could put the NDP-Liberal partnershi­p to its biggest test to date.

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