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Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin.

lawrence martin

Trudeau flexes his muscle with provinces Add to ...

Middle party. Middle way. Did anyone expect anything different?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan to impose, if necessary, a national carbon-price plan while giving the green light to a huge liquefied natural-gas project in British Columbia follows a time-honoured Liberal tradition.

Everything is still left versus right in our politics. Liberal governments lay anchor in the centre, while trying to reach out to both flanks. It’s the art of the compromise. They bank on Canadians, who are by and large moderately inclined, to buy in.

On the important energy/environment file, the Liberals will let the arm-flapping moralists on the left go all green, while the right hardlines it on resource extraction.

Saskatchewan’s conservative Premier Brad Wall can yelp all he wants as far as the Liberals are concerned. The Premier says that with his unilateralism, the Prime Minister is showing a stunning level of “disrespect” toward the provinces and a “betrayal” of the promised co-operation with provinces.

Those are harsh words. If Mr. Wall really wants to take on Mr. Trudeau he should come to Ottawa. The federal Conservative Party’s leadership is open. Mr. Wall is strong. He could probably win it. But he’s taking a pass.

Mr. Trudeau has been accused of being all hat, no cattle (“When ya going to do something besides pose for pictures?”). With his housing-market crackdown and his carbon-price edict, so much for that rap.

He is finally spending political capital. How much? If the middle theory holds, maybe not too much. Canadians wants to get resources to market, but they also favour a carbon tax. They want a balancing act.

The Prime Minister’s terms on carbon – $10 a tonne of carbon emitted in 2018 – are hardly draconian. They could be, and perhaps should be, stiffer. His approval of the LNG project in northern British Columbia sets the stage for his approval of a pipeline project (likely the expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain line from Alberta to Vancouver) to get oil to market.

The Trudeau government does not have a tough act to follow. On pipeline construction and the environment, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives record was paltry.

The Liberal government before him did little as well and it’s about time this country made an effort to live up to its international commitments, in this case the agreement on climate change made in Paris last December.

Ed Fast, the Conservative critic for environment and climate change, likened Mr. Trudeau’s actions to using a “sledgehammer” to force provinces to accept a “carbon-tax grab.” But, if it turns out that Ottawa has to tax emissions in the place of the provinces, the tax proceeds are to be returned to provincial treasuries.

Whatever happened, Mr. Fast wondered, to co-operative federalism? Mr. Harper, in whose cabinet he served, tended to give the provinces more liberty to act on their own. But not always.

Mr. Harper went to war with Newfoundland premier Danny Williams and Ontario premiers; he refused to meet with the premiers collectively for fear it would cause friction. But friction is sometimes the price that has to be paid to serve the national interest. Discord will certainly be forthcoming now, not just about the carbon plan but also about a national funding deal for health care.

The record of Ottawa trying to impose its will on the provinces is mixed. On the negative side, Pierre Trudeau’s national energy program comes to mind. On the plus side, we would never have had repatriation and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms without his iron will and iron hand in dealing with the provinces.

In citing support for having to act unilaterally if necessary, Justin Trudeau on Monday used the example of the Canada Pension Plan and medicare. His father had to impose a national tax for health care to make the Lester Pearson plan work. Ontario’s then-premier, John Robarts, went bananas, sounding even more appalled than today’s Brad Wall. (As it turned out, there was little need to be.)

If Conservatives or New Democrats have a better plan for economic development combined with environmental stewardship, they should make it known.

The inertia of the past won’t do. Canada could move along, as it has been, with a hodgepodge of provincial schemes. But it is better that there be national cohesion and purpose. If that entails some warring with the provinces, bring it on.

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