Although last week’s federal cabinet shuffle generated little excitement here, it was a different story in New Brunswick. There, the surprise appointment as Health minister of Ginette Petitpas Taylor, a rookie backbencher from the Moncton area, created considerable buzz.

Aside from the fun fact that the appointment gave the province with 2% of the population 6% of cabinet posts (Trudeau friend and Fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc is the other New Brunswick cabinet minister) there was the added possibility that the new Health minister would be sympathetic to the health funding concerns of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the other smaller provinces.

Ever since the Harper government re-jigged the formula to the benefit of the wealthier provinces the other provinces have been trying to recoup some of their losses by arguing that the formula needs to be further adjusted to recognize greater needs in provinces, like the Maritimes and Newfoundland, with older populations.

This is a position that has been endorsed by the Canadian Medical Association, the Conference Board of Canada and most recently, by a committee of the Canadian Senate. The proposition has found no favour, however, with several other provincial governments, especially Ontario, nor with the outgoing Health minister, Toronto-area MP Jane Philpott.

Perhaps with Philpott’s replacement, coming as she does from a fiscally-challenged province with an aging population, the proposal would get a better hearing? Based on media reports, we shouldn’t count on it.

Province changed tune

Chantal Hebert, writing in the Toronto Star suggests the Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe MP’s promotion has mostly to do with her bilingualism and the impending legalization of marijuana. Petitpas Taylor, along with MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair and Justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould will be on the front lines on that file. The new Health minister is the only one of the three who speaks French, important because the federal government’s legalization plans are encountering flak in Quebec.

And then there’s the gender balance thing. Symmetry was thrown off by the replacement of the retiring Judy Foote, previously the Newfoundland representative in the cabinet, with Trudeau friend Seamus O’Regan. Cabinet gender balance was restored with Petitpas Taylor’s appointment.

As for the minister herself, in an interview with the Saint John Telegraph-Journal she cited her social work background and experience in addictions and mental health counselling as assets she brings to the job. She acknowledged the challenge provincial governments face in serving a rapidly aging population. However, rather than address the funding formula Petitpas Taylor said only that she would look into a proposal from New Brunswick for a joint home care pilot project aimed at having more seniors cared for at home.

When the Conservatives were in power, the New Brunswick Liberal government was outspoken in condemning the feds for slashing the rate of increase in health transfers. The Gallant government changed its tune when the Trudeau Liberals embraced the Conservative cuts, adding some modest additional targeted funding for home care and mental health to cushion the blow. Indeed, New Brunswick was the first province to abandon the provincial common front and accept the federal offer.

Costly to provinces

As calculated in my post last March the capitulation that started with New Brunswick will cost the provinces dearly over the next ten years – for example a shortfall of at least $1.2 billion for Nova Scotia between what the provinces were seeking and what they accepted after the common front fell apart. Nonetheless, New Brunswick now appears content just to talk about a “partnership” with the federal government on a home care pilot project.

“Obviously, having Ginette Petitpas Taylor now as minister hopefully will advance those discussions,” Health minister Victor Boudreau told the CBC, adding that it can only be beneficial to the province to have a second New Brunswick minister at the federal table. “Not to say we don’t have a great relationship already with the Trudeau government.”

That’s the solid front of partisan politics talking there, but there are other voices. Unlike the media in Nova Scotia, which seem uninterested in the problem, the Irving-owned press in New Brunswick is ready to pursue it. In an editorial the Telegraph-Journal allowed that while the new minister faces challenges like cannabis legalization and drug overdoses the biggest issue is “what is the federal government going to do about the effect of an aging population on health care?” The answer, according to the newspaper is for the feds “to adjust the health funding model to account for population composition.”

And then there’s the Senate, another unlikely ally. In June, the Senate Finance Committee, headed by a Conservative Senator from New Brunswick and a Liberal from Ontario, put out a report calling on the government to consider demographics when calculating federal transfers “to ensure that all regions of the country have the resources to fulfill their responsibilities with respect to the aging population.”

Those are good arguments, but the new minister would have better luck selling them to her boss and cabinet colleagues if the Liberal governments and a few of the Liberal MPs in the Atlantic provinces had the political fortitude to speak up on behalf of the citizens of the region.