Speaking to the Economic Club of Toronto on Tuesday, in advance of a meeting with fellow premiers later this month, Manitoba’s Greg Selinger made the familiar and unconvincing case that health care is in jeopardy because of a federal retreat from it. But in a meeting with the Globe’s editorial board, Mr. Selinger also echoed a more compelling argument put forward the previous day by Nova Scotia’s Darrell Dexter – that three years have passed since the last meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and all the premiers, and it’s time they did so again.
It’s understandable that Mr. Harper has been inclined to keep his distance. First Ministers meetings been often been seen by provincial governments as opportunities to collectively squeeze money out of Ottawa. Misleading claims that Mr. Harper’s Conservatives plan to dramatically reduce the share of federal funding for health care surely do little to assuage fears of a repeat performance.
But that is not an excuse to avoid meeting entirely. While it’s reasonable for Ottawa to fund a portion of health care and otherwise treat it as a provincial responsibility, there are plenty of other areas of shared interest and responsibility – first among them economic stewardship. Mr. Harper’s government managed to work co-operatively with provinces in responding to the 2008 economic crash with stimulus spending; now that the focus has shifted to long-term goals such as trade strategy, it should be able to do likewise.
On some matters of primarily federal jurisdiction, meanwhile, the Prime Minister might actually benefit from more provincial engagement. The federal government has struggled to deliver health care and education to First Nations; provinces with more expertise in delivering social services seem eager to help Mr. Harper improve that record. And as Ottawa undertakes ambitious and for the most part worthwhile changes to immigration policies, it should be taking care not to run roughshod over provincial settlement services, and to ensure that it’s balancing the human resource needs of all regions.
Much of this could be accomplished through more direct communication between Ottawa and individual provinces. But if the premiers are willing to forsake the gang-ups, there could be value in meeting. Perhaps the past three years could come to be seen a cooling-off period in federal-provincial relations, rather than the start of a deep freeze.