Darrell Dexter is watching Stephen Harper very carefully these days.
First, the NDP Premier of Nova Scotia is “nervously anticipating” the Prime Minister’s federal budget on March 29, fearful of what deep cuts to departments like national defence and fisheries will do to his province.
And, as he takes over as chair of the premiers’ group – the Council of the Federation – he is watching with great interest the way in which the Prime Minister handles the federal-provincial relationship.
In July, Mr. Dexter will play host to his fellow premiers as they try to eke out funding from a stingy government for health care and equalization transfers.
“It’s a fascinating time to take over as chair of the council,” he said in a recent interview.
Fascinating because he believes the Harper Tories are changing the nature of federalism now that they finally have a majority mandate – a change, he warns, that could be “bad” for the country.
He said the Conservatives are adopting a “classical approach to confederation,” which is “a significant departure from what we have seen.”
“They say, ‘We are going to stick to our knitting and you stick to yours,’ which, of course, is a completely different concept of government,” he argued.
Interestingly, the Prime Minister did not talk about this during his six years in minority government, Mr. Dexter said. “We didn’t actually hear it in the same way before the federal Conservatives had a majority. … They may have pursued it but they didn’t talk about it.”
Mr. Dexter pointed to the health-care accord as an example of one of the ways the Prime Minister is making this change.
Last year, the federal government surprised the provinces with a take-it-or-leave-it, 10-year health accord that would guarantee an annual 6-per-cent increase until 2016-17. After that, increases would be tied to the growth in nominal gross domestic product, a measure of GDP plus inflation.
This was a deliberate strategy on the government’s part to circumvent a potentially dramatic first ministers’ meeting and to let the provinces deal with their own health care, something that is constitutionally their responsibility.
“We have had a collaborative Confederation model that we have proceeded on for many, many years …,” said Mr. Dexter. It was an approach in which federal funding was tied to the provinces adopting national standards.
“If the federal government withdraws and says we see these as a no-strings-attached program funding as the way we want to do things, this erodes the notion of a national standard or national program …,” he said.
For some provinces, this will allow a “level of freedom” to innovate, he acknowledged. But innovation and creativity take investment.
The richer provinces, like Saskatchewan and Alberta, perhaps have money to invest. But not the Atlantic.
“It becomes much more difficult for the East,” he argued.
The premiers, he said, need to do their homework in advance of the July meeting so that their message prevails – and not that of the federal government.
At their meeting in Victoria earlier this year, the premiers realized they were outwitted by the feds, up against a new “sophisticated” federal communications strategy.
“… We did come to what I consider to be quite a realization at our last meeting, which is that the federal government now prepares for our meetings from a media perspective in a way that they never have before,” said the Premier. “They wanted to ensure that their message is the one that gets through.”
It worked. All of the discussion was about the federal accord, that the 6-per-cent increase was generous and that there would be no negotiations.
But, Mr. Dexter said, the negotiations are not nearly over yet.
“Our role as premiers is not simply to blindly accept whatever the federal government says. Ours is to continue to make our case …,” he said.
And that’s what they will be doing in July.