Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says the federal government's unilateral approach to infrastructure funding is a "huge problem" and "unworkable," and she plans to use next week's premiers' conference as a platform to push for a coherent strategy.
With a federal election just months away, this summer's Council of the Federation meeting, held in St. John's, comes at a strategic time, giving the provincial and territorial leaders an opportunity to frame their issues for the federal parties.
Ms. Wynne plans to bring up the importance of provinces and the federal government working together on infrastructure spending for highways, transit and bridges. She is pushing for 5 per cent of GDP to be invested in infrastructure spending.
But she is especially annoyed by the Conservative government's recent decision to ignore the province's list of 106 priority infrastructure projects and instead allocate millions to expanding the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, located in a Tory-held territory in vote-rich Ontario.
In an interview Friday, she called it a "ridiculous way" of doing business and pointed to that project as a reason why it's important for the provincial and federal governments to work as one on infrastructure spending.
"This is not how it can work. We don't even know from this announcement whether this funding is certain for UOIT," she said. "We were asked to submit a list and we did that and now we are being bypassed in the funding process. It's just not workable."
On Friday, Ontario's Economic Development Minister, Brad Duguid, sent a letter to federal Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel expressing his "extreme disappointment" about the lack of consultation or agreement from the province around the federal government's funding decision.
This is just the latest issue on which Ms. Wynne, a Liberal premier, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have not seen eye to eye. But not all premiers have had the same experience; nor do they want to use this meeting to strategize about the federal election.
British Columbia's Christy Clark says her government has a "pretty good partnership" with the federal government on infrastructure funding. "In our case, we have been communicating with them. It's been pretty seamless," she said. "I don't think they've funded anything we didn't want." She added that "if Ontario doesn't want the money, we'll take it."
As for pushing a collective strategy on issues in advance of the election, Ms. Clark says premiers are not "lobbyists" or "stakeholders."
"I am cautious about staying away from politics – funny thing for a politician to say, but as premiers we represent everybody in our provinces. I am the leader of the B.C. Liberal Party but I'm not the premier of B.C. Liberals. I am the premier of all British Columbians," she said in an interview Friday. "My wish is we will stay focused on the issues other than the political season that is about to engulf us."
Ms. Clark is focused on trying to secure more health-care funding for seniors and issues relating to climate change. Her province is being hit hard by forest fires. "Because of climate change … it's so dry," she said. "I think what it means for all of us is we have to make a major adjustment in our thinking about how we are going to respond to these dry seasons." She called the hot, dry summer in B.C. "the new normal."
The premiers, meanwhile, also hope to see a national energy strategy unveiled – but there are four new premiers at the table, creating a new dynamic.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said the meeting will deal with skills, trade, innovation and the economy. He is also concerned about infrastructure. A number of highways in Nova Scotia need to be upgraded to be safer, and his government is looking at the possibility of creating some toll highways. But federal government support is also required, he said.