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The Premiers

Stephen Harper, meet your unofficial opposition Add to ...

In the final days before the 2006 election, Stephen Harper pooh-poohed the idea that a Conservative majority government would have free rein to impose some hidden radical agenda.

No such agenda existed, he told reporters, and even if it did, “We will have, for some time to come, a Liberal Senate, a Liberal civil service … and courts that have been appointed by the Liberals.”

Not only does Mr. Harper finally have his majority government, the Senate is now safely Conservative, the people he wants are in the places that matter in the bureaucracy and he has already appointed Supreme Court judges, with more to come.

But it is the premiers who historically have acted as a brake on activist federal governments, from John A. Macdonald's fights with Ontario and Quebec to Jean Chrétien's efforts to balance the books by slashing provincial transfers.

Mr. Harper is a strong advocate of provincial rights, and on his watch relations with the provinces have been mostly cordial. The days of nation-shaking fights between Ottawa and the provinces are probably behind us.

But voters are canny. As Thomas Klassen, a political scientist at Toronto's York University, points out, they sent a Conservative government to Ottawa that promises to rein in spending, while this week electing centre-left governments in Ontario, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, and choosing a new premier for Alberta who is more progressive than conservative.

“Not a bad strategy for citizens in a federation like ours, and in a time like this,” observes Prof. Klassen.

As the global economy trembles, all Canadian governments could soon face collapsing revenues and increased stress on the social safety net.

“They're going to battle over money,” Prof. Klassen predicts. In difficult times, “it's easiest for the federal government to download to the provinces, and it's easiest for the provinces to want the federal government to take on more.”

Herewith, the front bench of the real opposition to the Tories in Ottawa.

Dalton Mc Guinty

Back in the summer, when it looked like the provincial Liberals were toast, the Prime Minister was caught bragging that Ontario had delivered a majority Conservative government, that Rob Ford was the new conservative mayor of Toronto, and that Ontario voters would “complete the hat trick and do it provincially as well” by electing Conservative leader Tim Hudak.

Even when the Liberals started to come back in the polls, the Tories couldn't leave well enough alone. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty flatly declared that Ontario “can't afford four more years of the same Dalton McGuinty government.”

Guess what, boys: He's baaaaaack.

Mr. McGuinty's minority-government victory Thursday leaves Mr. Harper in an awkward situation. The Prime Minister and the Premier worked well together during the recession, co-operating on stimulus spending and riding together to the rescue of GM and Chrysler. But all that was before Mr. Harper's blunderbuss interference in the election.

Now that Mr. McGuinty has his third government, despite the federal Conservatives' best efforts, expect him to push hard on several fronts. He will demand a rethink of federal transfer programs that perpetually penalize Ontario taxpayers and reward poorer governments. Specifically, he will argue that unemployed workers in Ontario should enjoy the same benefits and eligibility as their counterparts in Prince Edward Island.

He will want to see the equalization program, which has to be renegotiated by 2014, scaled back, even though Ontario is now actually receiving money from it. And he will join other premiers in calling for a new health-care accord that combines predictability – say, a 10-year time frame – with generosity – federal increases well above the rate of inflation.

And after all Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty did to prevent him from keeping his job, don't expect Ontario's premier to play nice with the feds.

Alison Redford

The come-from-behind victory of Alberta's new premier-designate in the Progressive Conservative leadership race poses an interesting challenge for Mr. Harper. Ms. Redford is a Red Tory – and you thought they were extinct – and the federal Conservatives would probably be ideologically more comfortable if the upstart Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith won the next election. But there is no sign as yet that will happen.

While a Redford-led Alberta is less likely to demand more autonomy over domestic programs, it is more likely to join with the other provinces in demanding increased federal support for health care. If Mr. Harper was hoping for an Alberta ally in any fight over scaling back equalization payments or social transfers, he might have hoped in vain.

And to prove to the right wing of her party that she's one of them, Ms. Redford may join Dalton McGuinty in demanding a new equalization deal that funnels less from the pockets of taxpayers in rich provinces in order to prop up social services among the have-nots.

On one vital front, though, Alberta Tories will be united at both the federal and provincial level: defending the oil sands against the attacks of enviros and Europeans alike.

Greg Selinger, Robert Ghiz and Kathy Dunderdale

Manitoba and Prince Edward Island both returned progressive governments from have-not provinces this week. Both will be seeking a generous new equalization program that pays more money to them and none to Ontario, which is now the second-largest recipient. Both will join the fight for a generous new health-care accord, with no accountability strings attached. They want a hand out, not a hand up.

Kathy Dunderdale is expected to join their ranks if, as expected she wins Tuesday's election in Newfoundland and Labrador. Though Ms. Dunderdale is nominally a Conservative, all Atlantic Canadian politicians want the same thing from Ottawa: more.

Christy Clark and Jean Charest

British Columbia's new Liberal premier faces a strong challenge from Adrian Dix of the NDP if and when she goes to the polls. Quebec's veteran Liberal premier is deeply unpopular, though the opposition is fractured. Picking a fight with the feds is a time-honoured recipe for deflecting voter attention from problems on the home front. Ms. Clark is already threatening to create a provincial police force for B.C. unless she gets a better deal on a new RCMP policing contract. And what does Mr. Charest think of the federal notion of financing a new bridge for Montreal with tolls?

The good news for Mr. Harper is that the premiers may spend less time fighting Ottawa than they spend fighting each other, as rich provinces seek to keep revenues at home and poorer ones demand a more generous fiscal framework.

But if fights do break out between the skinflints in Ottawa and the lefties in the provinces, it will be because the voters themselves want it that way.

John Ibbitson is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau chief

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