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The Globe and Mail

Provinces put young faces on political landscape

Premier-designate Christy Clark hugs her nine -year-old son, Hamish, at a the B.C. Liberal convention in Vancouver on Feb. 26, 2011.


Provincial governments are in the midst of generational change, as Christy Clark joins the swelling ranks of new premiers who will take on Ottawa in a contest for wealth and power.

Ms. Clark will replace outgoing British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell - an icon, if one were needed, for the old, tired crew who have either left, been pushed or face being pushed by voters who want new voices at the table playing a different political game.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick elected new premiers last year. Alberta and Newfoundland are in the midst of leadership contests, and provincial elections this fall could see new voices speaking for Ontario and Manitoba. Quebec Premier Jean Charest may soon be seen as a sole surviving provincial relic of the ancien regime.

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The new premiers will have a full domestic agenda. But some of their biggest battles will be fought against each other and against the federal government.

With the exception of the odd dust-up, peace mostly reigned in federal-provincial relations while the old crew was in charge. But both the health-care funding and equalization agreements expire in 2014. Both are broken. Health-care spending nationally is rising at twice the rate of inflation, and now consumes 12 per cent of the economy. The provinces will want federal funding to at least match the growth in costs, and will demand freedom to spend the money as they see fit.

The federal government, whether Conservative or Liberal, will be seeking to constrain spending to meet the goal of a balanced budget by mid-decade. If Stephen Harper is prime minister, this could be the moment when Ottawa signals to the provinces that they are free to introduce private-sector alternatives to public care without fear of being penalized under the Canada Health Act.

A Liberal government will seek to preserve the principle of public care while struggling to slow the flow of provincial transfers as part of its own budget-balancing plans.

Equalization may be an even bigger battle. Voters and politicians in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia are increasingly convinced that the system penalizes the most dynamic parts of the country while feeding dependency among the have-not provinces. Why should Quebeckers get cheap home care and rock-bottom university tuition, paid for by Alberta taxpayers, Alberta taxpayers ask.

Why should Ontario, which is now technically a have-not province thanks to its so-last-century economy, send one dollar outside the province?

But as the largest recipient of equalization (though not on per capita basis), Quebec will continue to insist that it receive help from the rest of the country as a condition of remaining in it, while the Maritimes will warn that cutting off equalization will send a flood of economic migrants down the road.

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In the flush of victory, Ms. Clark is far from ready to start picking fights. When asked Sunday about B.C.-Canada relations, she pledged: "We want to make sure that's a great productive relationship." Expect her position to toughen over the coming months, or expect someone else as leader of British Columbia after the next election.

Along with giving the provinces more autonomy over health care, Mr. Harper may propose replacing equalization, at least in part, with transferred tax points: in essence, lowering federal taxes and inviting the provinces to raise taxes correspondingly.

Of course, the one place generational change is not happening is at the federal level. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton are in their 60s. Mr. Harper first arrived in Ottawa as an MP in 1993.

So the battles to come will also be a struggle between old guard and new.

Ms. Clark should put the briefing book on federal-provincial relations at the top of the pile. It will be a key part of her new job.

Besides, co-operating with Ottawa got British Columbia the harmonized sales tax. And look how that turned out.

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