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Charest demands debate on 'unacceptable' federal health deal

Calling the federal government's unexpected announcement on health-care funding last month "unprecedented" and "unacceptable," Quebec Premier Jean Charest today called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to open the issue to further debate.

Mr. Charest also said the new funding formula – one that was generally deemed to be acceptable by Western premiers and rejected by those from central and eastern Canada – highlighted a new truth about the country.

"On Canada generally, what I see is interesting and also quite simple," said Mr. Charest. "There's two realities in Canada; there are the economies of oil, gas and potash and others. That's the reality of Canada and once we know that we need, I think, to be able to make decisions accordingly and that's the financial situation of the country and we need to take that into account as we move ahead."

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The Quebec premier did not clarify his comments before heading into a morning session with his fellow premiers. But his remarks seemed to fortify a growing impression that there is a growing East/West divide in Canada that has been created along economic lines but it is now seeping quickly into the political realm.

But Mr. Charest saved his harshest criticism for the prime minister and his government for not consulting with the premiers before presenting them with a non-negotiable offer on health-care funding.

"We have always, in Canada, because of our federal system of government, had a dialogue on this, an exchange of information and then decisions were made," said the premier.

"Never have I witnessed a process by which the federal government, as they did only a few weeks ago here in Victoria, come in and say: 'This is it.' No discussion, no exchange of information, nothing at all. I've never seen it."

He said one of the pan-national discussions that needs to take place – one that includes Ottawa – is around what is an appropriate level of funding for health care by the federal government.

At one time, he said, it was 50 per cent. The Romanow Report of 2002 recommended it be around 25 per cent, said Mr. Charest. It now sits at about 20 per cent but a new report by Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page suggests it could drop to as low as 10 per cent under Ottawa's new funding proposal.

"So I would have asked the question: where does the federal government see its role?" said the premier. "Where does it think funding should be? We have time to have this discussion. We're at 2012. The (current health) accord expires in 2014."

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"Frankly, I can't explain why the federal government wouldn't want a discussion on this. Why? What's the problem?"

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National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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