The annual premiers’ conference, hogging much of last week’s national political spotlight, came off as a polarizing affair. The tone was set in advance when Alberta’s Jason Kenney invited some of his fellow resistance fighters[i] (premiers Doug Ford and Scott Moe and newbies Blaine Higgs and Bob McLeod from the Northwest Territories) to a special pre-conference photo-op in Calgary.
There the gang of five (in Doug Ford’s characterization “like-minded premiers that want their provinces to thrive”) flipped pancakes at a Stampede breakfast and complained about the federal government in general and Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax in particular.
When the main meeting got underway in Saskatoon the following day the media were quick to note another divide. With Kenney replacing Rachel Notley as Alberta premier, for the first time in over a decade there were no women around the table. Bruce MacKinnon’s editorial cartoon in the Chronicle-Herald featured nine of the provincial and territorial leaders – middle-aged white males all – sitting primly as host Scott Moe announced “We had a robust discussion of women’s issues.”
Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti, calling the meeting “a sausage party to which no girls we invited” bemoaned the pro-business bias of the participants, a complaint borne out in the communiqués that form the public record of the closed-door meeting.
The document on “Economic Competitiveness and Responsible Resource Development” could have been written by an oil industry lobbyist or Conservative party researcher. It called for increased “certainty for investors” by ensuring that federal environmental assessments don’t get in the way of moving stuff – especially oil and gas – to markets. To that end, the premiers embraced a version of the federal Conservatives’ dubious energy corridor idea, backing “further discussions on pan-Canadian economic corridors, both east-west and north-south, to increase productivity by distributing energy, communications, and economic potential currently locked in a single province or territory to other jurisdictions.”
A separate communiqué on “Health Sustainability and Mental Health” lacked any new ideas – even wacky ones. A statement on mental health and addiction expressed concern about many issues, including the opioid overdose epidemic. But no initiatives came forward beyond a promised symposium for sometime in the future. The Premiers also addressed pharmacare, showing no more enthusiasm this year than they displayed at their 2018 meeting in St. Andrew’s. Their main goal seems to be retaining provincial responsibility “for design and delivery of public drug coverage,” a stance that prompted a letter to the Globe and Mail from a Toronto reader who wrote:
“I don’t remember a time when such a collection of petty, tin-pot wannabe-dictators were in power, and showed such disdain for the country as a whole and its people.”
That is a compelling observation, but before writing off the entire exercise as a pre-election, politically driven waste of time and money, there is one section of the health communiqué worth noting. The Premiers repeated their familiar demand for increased health transfers, citing reports from the Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO), discussed most recently here. As the communiqué notes, PBO reports show that the federal government “has the fiscal capacity to increase its healthcare funding and return to a more equitable partnership with provinces and territories”.
In search of a more equitable partnership, the Premiers put back on the table as a starting point an annual transfer increase of 5.2 per cent, up from about four per cent now. That higher figure represents the position the provinces had put forward in negotiations on a new health accord in 2016, a demand that disappeared after Liberal governments in the Atlantic provinces led an exodus away from the provincial common front.
Whether it’s forgiveness, forgetfulness or the fact that charter member of the resistance, Brian Pallister of Manitoba, continued to complain long after the rest of the smaller provinces had agreed to Trudeau’s health deal, the communiqué tosses an important sop in the direction of Atlantic provinces with higher health care needs, reciting that “the Conference Board of Canada also notes the Canada Health Transfer does not factor aging into its payments, and as such, federal transfers are not sufficient to support the additional care needs of Canada’s aging population.”
While not exactly a ringing endorsement of a much-needed demographic top up, that part of the communiqué complements the efforts of the Atlantic premiers. They convened their own pre-conference meeting (without pancake flipping) last week to compose a statement calling on the feds “to increase health care funding to address the impact of the region’s aging population on Atlantic Canada’s health care systems.”
So an event that from all appearances was about aggrandizing Ford, Kenney and their like-minded friends ended up putting back on the pre-election agenda an item of considerable importance to voters in this region. It will be interesting to see how it is addressed as party platforms are released in the weeks ahead.
[i] The Macleans magazine cover of December 2018 that will live in infamy featured the Resistance – Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, then Alberta opposition Leader Jason Kenney and Premiers Doug Ford of Ontario, Scott Moe of Saskatchewan and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister.