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It was Bill and Jane's fabulous health-care emporium, where deals are slippery and you must buy now.

Monday's health-care funding talks between Ottawa and the provinces, steered by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Health Minister Jane Philpott, should be a blow to the credibility of Justin Trudeau's government.

Normally, it's hard to have too much sympathy for the provinces when it comes to talks on how much money Ottawa should transfer for health care. They invariably insist Ottawa must give them more and more, offering little in return other than milder complaints.

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If Mr. Trudeau's government hadn't made election promises and a lot of broad hints, the "offer" of funding would make sense: Ottawa must control growth in health-care transfers or it will eventually crowd out other things from the budget.

Related: Liberals fail to clinch 10-year health deal with provinces

Read more: Provinces irate over health funding talks with Morneau

Opinion: Our leaders need to offer Canadians a new vision for health care

But the Liberals did make promises. They promised a collaborative approach, and suggested, when they were asking for votes, that there'd be a little more money for health care. Now, they're playing a shell game, trying to pretend they are offering more and more money with each new proposal, when really they aren't.

The feds played with the numbers in a manner familiar to anyone who has leased a car or bought a mobile-phone plan – they fiddled with up-front amounts, lump sums and annual payments to make the same amount of money look different.

There is a lot at stake. Federal health transfers to provinces have increased by 6 per cent a year for more than a decade. If they kept growing at that pace for another decade, they'd go from $36-billion this year to about $61-billion in 2025-26.

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Mr. Trudeau's predecessor, Stephen Harper, told the provinces that the increases would be smaller as of 2017. Instead of 6 per cent, they'd rise in line with nominal GDP – the rate of economic growth plus inflation. And at a minimum, transfers would go up by 3 per cent a year.

That was the starting point for last year's election politicking. The NDP said they'd undo Mr. Harper's "cuts" – really smaller increases – and maintain 6-per-cent annual increases.

Mr. Trudeau refused to provide a number, but he blasted Mr. Harper's take-it-or-leave it diktat and promised a "collaborative" approach to forging a new health accord with provinces. A reasonable voter would take that as an indication the Liberals would make the annual increase less than 6 per cent, but at least a little larger than Mr. Harper's. And in addition, Mr. Trudeau promised a Liberal government would inject $3-billion over four years to improve home-care services.

But in recent months, the federal Liberals decided to offer less: they'd still offer the promised $3-billion over four years for home care, but they'd stick with Mr. Harper's planned rate of increases.

That was hardball. And their offer hasn't changed much since, except for jiggery-pokery with the numbers.

The second offer, made late last week, included "raising" the annual increase to 3.5 per cent – but taking away the link to GDP growth and inflation. In practice, that would probably make Mr. Trudeau's annual increases smaller than Mr. Harper's indexation, because many economists predict nominal GDP will rise by an annual average of between 3.5 per cent and 4 per cent. Ottawa also offered to extend the home-care funding from $3-billion over four years to $8-billion over 10 years – that sounds like a lot more, but overall the offer was really a wash, with more risk for provinces.

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The "last" offer, made Monday, was to leave the annual transfers for years six to 10 undecided – in reality, Ottawa was proposing a five-year health accord, rather than a 10-year deal. The feds said they'd increase home-care money and mental-health money to $11.5-billion over 10 years. But $1-billion was actually infrastructure funding, and the rest was weighted so more would be transferred in years six to 10 – the years when overall funding was undecided. In reality, Ottawa was offering a five-year deal with the terms largely the same as before.

That's where it sits. Mr. Morneau and Ms. Philpott talked about going back to the drawing board, disappointed the provinces didn't take their sweetened plan. But it wasn't really better than what Ottawa was offering before.

If that's all hardball negotiating tactics, that's fine, but Ottawa's misleading games with the numbers should hurt their credibility with the public. If it's the end of the negotiations, then Mr. Trudeau's promise of collaborative federalism is out the window – not because Ottawa has to keep giving the provinces more and more, but because Mr. Trudeau campaigned on broad hints that there would be more than this.

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