Canada's premiers are inserting themselves into the 2015 federal election campaign with a joint call for major new spending on infrastructure, a request the Conservative government dismisses as "oblivious" to the current state of the economy.
Federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver issued a strongly worded statement Friday morning as a meeting of the premiers was getting under way in Ottawa, saying this is "precisely the wrong time" for what he described as a massive deficit program.
"The opposition and some premiers appear oblivious to the consequences of the current global instability and the dramatic decline in the price of oil," Mr. Oliver said.
That did not sit well with many premiers, including Quebec's Philippe Couillard, who said he's heard from numerous experts at home and abroad who say that now is in fact the right time to spur economic growth through infrastructure investments.
"I was very surprised by the rapidity of [Mr. Oliver's] message," Mr. Couillard said in French. "It doesn't correspond with what is required for the economy."
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was more blunt. "I believe that the response that Mr. Oliver has given so quickly to our discussion really demonstrates, in my opinion, that the oblivion is not on the part of the premiers. The oblivion actually is on the part of the federal government," she said, an indication that the recent detente in hostilities between Queens Park and Ottawa was short-lived.
Ms. Wynne, who held a joint news conference with federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau Thursday before the premiers meeting, recently urged Ottawa and the provinces to spend tens of billions more a year on infrastructure. Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz supported that call Friday, arguing that Ottawa has more fiscal room to act over the longer term than the provinces.
The final communiqué from the premiers called on Ottawa to increase transfers for public infrastructure and heath care, but did not mention a specific amount.
The premiers met at a time when economic trends between provinces are shifting dramatically. Alberta, which had been far ahead of the pack in terms of economic growth, is now facing hard times in an era of low oil prices. Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador will also feel the pain of lower oil royalties. By contrast, Ontario and Quebec are expected to see an economic boost as Central Canada's manufacturing sector benefits from lower energy costs and the rapid depreciation in the value of the Canadian dollar.
The federal government recently delayed the release of the 2015 budget until at least April in response to falling oil prices, which the Parliamentary Budget Officer said will likely shave about $5-billion a year from federal revenues.
Two of Stephen Harper's key allies among the premiers – Alberta's Jim Prentice and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall – did not attend Friday's meetings.
Mr. Ghiz, the chair of the premiers meeting who is days away from stepping down from the job, chided the Prime Minister for refusing to meet with Canada's provinces, noting that Mr. Harper regularly avoids the first ministers while finding time for hockey games.
"Maybe it's my fault," he joked. "If I had planned it a little bit better, maybe I would have planned this meeting around the world junior hockey championships and he might have been here."
Mr. Ghiz noted that with a federal election coming up in the fall, the premiers would like to see all federal parties respond to provincial concerns when they release their campaign platforms.
"We're trying to send a message not only to the federal government but to all federal political parties that there are areas of concern to Canadians that we think should be addressed in the next federal election, specifically around infrastructure," he said.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark noted that provinces are still getting their message across to Ottawa.
"They may not agree with us, but we know there's someone on the other side of that TV screen listening to what we have to say today," she said. "It's always better when we collaborate as broadly as we can in order to build the country, but I think we accomplish a lot without them here too."