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Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, left, confers with Energy Minister Donald Macdonald and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau before the start of the second day of the first ministers' conference in 1975 to discuss oil and natural gas prices. (The Canadian Press)
Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, left, confers with Energy Minister Donald Macdonald and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau before the start of the second day of the first ministers' conference in 1975 to discuss oil and natural gas prices. (The Canadian Press)

First Ministers meetings serve the long-term interests of Canada Add to ...

The other night, while waiting for a flight at Pearson Airport, I watched a clip from a Peter Mansbridge interview with the late Peter Lougheed. Mr. Lougheed was arguing the value of First Ministers meetings. Meetings that hardly ever happen anymore.

Political advisors to this and recent Prime Ministers are probably tempted to say good riddance. The meetings always had the potential to become donnybrooks, or gang beatings of the federal first minister by provincial leaders. Some could argue that all the meetings about the Constitution, despite best intentions, ended up making things worse, given the perpetual outsider status of Quebec.

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But on balance, something important has been lost.

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that first ministers meetings started to become a recurring part of Canada’s political dynamic. Bennett, King, St. Laurent, Diefenbaker, and Pearson all chaired such get togethers. But it was Pierre Trudeau, who held more than 20 conferences, who turned them into a political showcase, and harnessed the rising influence of TV in the coverage of national affairs. Later, Brian Mulroney convened 14, Jean Chretien 7. Stephen Harper has held but one. His office notes that he has met with Premiers individually dozens of times. Mr. Harper has refused the Premiers’ request for a meeting this fall on the economy.

It’s hard to make the case that having more of these meetings would help Mr. Harper’s political standing, or that not having more than one has hurt him. I happen think it would serve his political purposes to let voters see him hearing different points of view, showing diplomatic and managerial skills, as well as making his own arguments, but that’s not my point.

Whether good or bad for any individual politician, these meetings help people understand the nature of our country, the challenges it faces, the personalities of our political leaders and their skills and aptitudes.

We could use more of that. The decline in public engagement with national politics is chronic and debilitating. Fewer people know much about our key political figures. Understanding of the key policy choices that mark our time is arguably weaker than ever. Where and when, anymore, do we have a sustained public discussion about how the different parts of Canada can work together?

Does this matter? Sure it does, in lots of ways.

The less we know about our politics, the easier it is to reflexively blame our politicians for all ills and disappointments. Right now, our collective attitude towards politicians is like a dog chasing its tail: slagging them as spoiled, self absorbed incompetents ensures that anyone who doesn’t fit that description is hardly tempted to run for office. Go figure.

There are many good politicians, in every party. I think public impressions to the contrary are unjustified, but worse, self-defeating. To avoid a race to the bottom, where fewer good people run, for fear of being treated as pariahs, it would be useful to have more opportunities to see political leaders at work. Highly visible platforms – with risks, and consequences. We are practiced at punishing politicians we don’t like; but have we lost the ability to spot and reward those who are doing a good job?

These platforms make good politicians better, and shine an unfavourable light on the worst ideas or weak proponents. The discipline of making a case passionately, thoughtfully, and with the nation watching, is healthy for people in public life, and in the long run, produces better governance. While on some occasions, it can lead to grandstanding and provocation for its own sake, over the long term, human nature compels most good political leaders, in Canada anyway, to tilt towards reasonableness and accomodation.

The election of a new separatist government in Quebec has been met with what feels like a collective shrug in the rest of Canada, which is certainly better than collective panic. But at some point, it will be useful to have this debate play out in a public forum, if only to ensure that we don’t sleepwalk into some new constitutional crisis.

Another issue that could use this kind of forum is one raised by BC Premier Christy Clark recently. The idea that BC should be compensated for taking on environmental risks to ensure Alberta’s oil can reach Asian markets goes to the heart of how our economies will interrelate. It’s an important debate, but one that seemingly can’t be sustained for more than one news cycle. Resentments can develop and deepen, with no outlet for them to be resolved.

The era of Peter Lougheed, and the First Ministers meetings he attended, was a fascinating one to watch: Premiers like Richard Hatfield, Bill Davis and Peter Lougheed shone and became important voices in our national politics, and they raised the game of others. These meetings allowed Canadians to feel that the genuine differences of regional and ideological perspective were being heard and reflected in our national debate. Whatever the near term political risks, the long term interests of our country would be well served if there were more of these meetings.

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