Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz has thrown down the gauntlet, demanding Ottawa do more to help the provinces on everything from health care to skills training. And if Prime Minister Stephen Harper won’t work more closely with them, he warned, the provinces will make his party pay in the next federal election.
The desire for a closer federal-provincial relationship dominated a premiers’ meeting in Toronto on Friday. The provinces vowed to keep pressing for changes to Ottawa’s proposed Canada Job Grant, discussed improving the Canada Pension Plan and cautioned that changing rules are hampering foreign investment.
Resolving all these issues will require Ottawa’s co-operation.
“There’s going to be an election in 2015, and the provinces are going to be heard loud and clear, to deliver a message to all federal parties,” Mr. Ghiz said after the meeting. “Federal and provincial governments are equal partners in Canada … We need to make sure we’re working together and unfortunately, right now, that’s not happening.”
Premiers have, in recent years, requested that Mr. Harper meet with them collectively. But he has shown a preference for dealing with the premiers one on one. His government has also told the provinces to co-ordinate national health care policy themselves.
“Our government will continue to work with the provinces and territories on our shared priorities, and to create jobs, foster economic growth and long-term prosperity for all Canadians,” Mr. Harper’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald, wrote in an e-mail. “The Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues regularly meet with their provincial and territorial counterparts to discuss areas of mutual interest and concern, and will continue to do so.”
For some premiers, this isn’t enough.
“The framing issue which comes up at all of these meetings, and today was no exception, was the relationship with the federal government,” said Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, who chaired the session.
The provinces are exerting the most pressure on Ottawa over the Job Grant.
The program would see skills training tied to specific available jobs. The money would come from funds the federal government currently gives the provinces to pay for their own training programs. The provinces argue this existing system works, and should not be scaled back.
“The federal government is actually taking a program that’s working and they’re saying, ‘Even though it works, we don’t care,’ ” Mr. Ghiz said.
Federal Employment Minister Jason Kenney has said he is willing to consider changes if the provinces can give him specific proposals. British Columbia’s Christy Clark and New Brunswick’s David Alward are working on an alternative model for the grant to take back to Ottawa.
Several provinces also want a richer CPP, with workers paying more into the program and receiving bigger benefits in retirement. Ottawa is open to the idea in principle, but says it must wait until the economy is stronger so businesses can better afford to pay for the program.
The provinces have yet to agree on how much the program should be enhanced and how it would work. And not all agree a bigger CPP is the best way to help future retirees.
Alberta Premier Alison Redford said more work on the proposal is necessary before her province decides whether to support it.
But she delivered a warning of her own to Ottawa, arguing that “uncertainty” over rules governing foreign investment is stopping people from bringing their capital to Canada.
“The rules have been changing so quickly and so unilaterally in Canada for far too long,” she said. “What we have asked, and will ask today, is for the federal government to sit down through the finance ministers so we can have a clear relationship in terms of what the rules are, how we communicate them.”
Last year, Mr. Harper allowed the sale of Canadian energy firm Nexen to China’s government-owned CNOOC Ltd., but threw up new barriers to foreign investment, particularly by state-run enterprises, around Alberta’s oil sands.
Ms. Redford said this had discouraged many would-be investors, not only state companies.