The feuds this week between Premiers Kathleen Wynne of Ontario and Rachel Notley of Alberta and Conservative Leader Stephen Harper have been public and nasty.
But it's Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall people should be listening to. If they did, this election might actually advance an important debate over a roadblock that threatens this country's peace and prosperity.
Mr. Harper's and Ms. Wynne's relentless criticism of each other – it was her turn Friday, when she told reporters, "We need someone in that chair, as prime minister, who understands that working with provinces … is important to the country" – makes perfect sense. The Ontario and federal Liberals are so intimately connected, sharing databases and party militants, that it's only natural Ms. Wynne would be part of the federal Liberal campaign, and that the federal Conservatives would take her on.
In describing Ms. Notley's fiscal policies as "a disaster" in a campaign speech, Mr. Harper was no doubt encouraging party activists in Alberta to work harder, especially in Edmonton, where the NDP is challenging the Tories. If so, job done. Ms. Notley, in rejecting his criticism, showed commendable restraint. Both sides will now move on.
Brad Wall's comments are far more interesting. The Quebec government is threatening to veto the Energy East pipeline that would send oil from Saskatchewan and Alberta to terminals in Quebec City and Saint John unless environmental concerns are met – the so-called social licence.
Mr. Wall responded that the money Saskatchewan and Alberta contribute, and Quebec receives, through the equalization program is "a pretty good social licence." And earlier this week he turned on the equalization program itself, saying, "It is a lot of money to go out in a way that seems to be dated and not always efficient."
In an interview Friday with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Wall stressed that he was not attempting to link the money that "have" provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta send to "have not" provinces such as Quebec through equalization with Quebec's unwillingness to support Energy East.
But "I do think Western Canadians think that, in order to keep things going, and to be able to keep contributing as we are … we need to get our product to market," he added. As for equalization, "if we can't debate it, or have a chat about it, in an interminable election campaign, when can we?" he asked.
Saying this was only "blue sky" thinking, the Saskatchewan Premier wondered why hydro-generated revenue such as Quebec produces was treated differently, to Quebec's benefit, from oil-generated revenue in Alberta and Saskatchewan, under the equalization formula.
He wondered whether the $17-billion equalization program could be divided in two, with half the money going to help the stressed operational budgets of the Maritime provinces and the rest going to national infrastructure programs, or to tax incentives to encourage innovation.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is not impressed with Mr. Wall's speculation. "He looks for an opportunity for a headline any chance he gets," he retorted Thursday. "But to be perfectly frank, it doesn't help the national debate."
Mr. Wall, in response, acknowledged "this is an incendiary issue" that different regions of the country view differently, and that the federal party leaders don't want to touch. "But I wish they would."
The Premier has a point. Is every one of the equalization program's $17-billion being spent in the best possible way, in the national interest, with the least possible amount of waste?
What rights do provinces have to impair the economic development of other provinces? What obligations do have and have-not provinces have to each other?
What are the roles and responsibilities of the federal government in guiding infrastructure projects that cross provincial boundaries? What would the Liberals or NDP do differently than the Conservatives? And is "I'd work co-operatively with the premiers to (fill in the blank)" a sufficient answer?
Voters may be very interested in hearing how the federal leaders answer all of those questions.