Walk-out threat proves Ford’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence

Toronto Star - - FIRST MINISTERS CONFERENCE - Chan­tal Hébert Twit­ter: @Chan­talHbert

MON­TREAL— The last first min­is­ters con­fer­ence of Justin Trudeau’s cur­rent term in of­fice was the most ac­ri­mo­nious.

The im­mi­nence of a fed­eral and an Al­berta elec­tion cer­tainly con­trib­uted to the ten­sions. But those ten­sions will out­last next year’s fed­eral and pro­vin­cial votes.

Not all the lines that di­vided the premiers on Fri­day are drawn in the rel­a­tively shal­low ground of elec­toral sand.

Who­ever is prime minister a year from now will find the same ir­rec­on­cil­able pro­vin­cial dif­fer­ences on car­bon pric­ing and pipe­lines.

Some of those dif­fer­ences find On­tario’s Doug Ford and Que­bec’s François Le­gault on dif­fer­ent sides.

The two cen­tral Canada premiers made si­mul­ta­ne­ous maiden ap­pear­ances on the first min­is­ters’ stage on Fri­day in Mon­treal.

Here are some early ob­ser­va­tions as to how they fit in the cur­rent fed­eral-pro­vin­cial dy­nam­ics and what their pres­ence at the ta­ble may bode for a tu­mul­tuous fu­ture.

Among the par­tic­i­pants at the gath­er­ing, Ford brought the least ex­pe­ri­ence in pro­vin­cial pol­i­tics and it showed.

By threat­en­ing to walk out over agenda dif­fer­ences with the prime minister, he may have hoped to lead a larger boy­cott of the event.

But he found lit­tle sup­port for a walk­out among col­leagues.

Man­i­toba Premier Brian Pal­lis­ter — a fel­low Tory — spoke for the oth­ers when he said on his way in that he had not come all the way to Mon­treal to bail out at the first op­por­tu­nity.

It is not that premiers have not walked out or boy­cotted first min­is­ters’ con­fer­ences in the past. But it was al­most al­ways to un­der­line a griev­ance that had their prov­ince up in arms.

Af­ter the Meech Lake ac­cord failed in 1990, Que­bec stayed away from fed­eral-pro­vin­cial meet­ings in­clud­ing first min­is­ters con­fer­ences for the bet­ter part of two years.

In 2004, New­found­land and Labrador premier Danny Wil­liams left the ta­ble then presided over by Paul Martin over a quar­rel about the equal­iza­tion for­mula.

By com­par­i­son, Ford lacked a sub­stan­tial mo­tive — be­yond par­ti­san pe­tu­lance — to jus­tify his threat.

There is a rea­son why most premiers have not over the years found the walk­out op­tion to be at­trac­tive and why no On­tario gov­ern­ment leader had threat­ened a boy­cott in the past.

Day in and day out, the prime minister, by the sheer virtue of his po­si­tion, com­mands the na­tional stage. By com­par­i­son, it is not of­ten that a premier gets the op­por­tu­nity to take on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment in front of a pan-Cana­dian au­di­ence.

For­mer New­found­land and Labrador premier Clyde Wells who emerged as a key player in the mo­bi­liza­tion of pub­lic opin­ion against the Meech Lake con­sti­tu­tional ac­cord in the late eight­ies cer­tainly made the most of the na­tional ex­po­sure those con­fer­ences af­forded him.

As she looks to her up­com­ing re-elec­tion cam­paign, Al­berta Premier Rachel Notley is sim­i­larly putting her time in the spot­light to max­i­mum use these days.

At these gath­er­ings, On­tario is in a league of its own in terms of the in­flu­ence it yields on na­tional af­fairs.

On that ba­sis, Ford’s pre­de­ces­sors rightly felt that it was im­mensely more pro­duc­tive to throw their weight around at the ta­ble than to throw a tantrum for the cam­eras out­side the room. But then they did not amal­ga­mate their role as leader of Canada’s most-pop­u­lous prov­ince with that of fed­eral leader of the op­po­si­tion.

As he looks to the next three year of his cur­rent term in of­fice, Ford may want to pon­der the risks of trad­ing On­tario’s his­tor­i­cal role as a ma­jor pro­vin­cial an­chor and the lead­er­ship that used to at­tend it for that of loose can­non.

There is af­ter all a pos­si­bil­ity that Trudeau will be around for as long or longer than the time he heads the On­tario gov­ern­ment.

Que­bec’s Le­gault, for his part, will prob­a­bly never find Trudeau more amenable to his de­mands than in the pe­riod be­tween now and next year’s fed­eral elec­tion. The fed­eral Lib­er­als are hop­ing to make up for any seat losses else­where in Canada with gains in Que­bec next fall.

They are not spoil­ing for a fight with the new premier.

When Le­gault crossed over from the fed­er­al­ist camp, he brought along a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of sovereign­tist sym­pa­thiz­ers. If only to avoid breath­ing new life in the Parti Québé­cois, he has to demon­strate that he can make the CAQ re­la­tion­ship with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment work to Que­bec’s ben­e­fit.

The premier and the prime minister have an in­ter­est in finding com­mon ground.

For now Le­gault is con­tent to let his On­tario col­league take over his prov­ince’s ha­bit­ual role of dis­turber-in-chief.

That could change if An­drew Scheer comes to power next year. The CAQ premier made it crys­tal-clear on Fri­day that the re­sump­tion of the pro­ject to link the oil­sands through Que­bec to the At­lantic coast is a non-starter for his gov­ern­ment.

Chances are those words were not lost on Tran­sCanada, the par­ent com­pany of the de­funct En­ergy East pipe­line.

MARTIN OUEL­LET-DIOTTE AFP/GETTY IM­AGES

Que­bec Premier François Le­gault’s re­la­tion­ship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will prob­a­bly never be as close be­fore next year’s fed­eral elec­tion as it is now, Chan­tal Hébert writes, as the Lib­er­als hope to gain Com­mons seats in Que­bec.

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