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Premiers appeal to older voters in bid to pressure Harper on health

Flanked by Quebec Premier Jean Charest and Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, B.C. Premier Christy Clark chairs a meeting of the Council of the Federation in Victoria on Jan. 16, 2012.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Provinces and territories opposed to Ottawa's new health-care funding plan will appeal to Conservative-minded older voters in bid to force the Harper government back to the negotiating table.

But efforts to achieve unity at this week's summit in Victoria, which comes one month after federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivered the new 10-year funding plan at a working lunch to stunned provincial finance ministers, have stumbled early.

Some hoped to unite behind a call for a health-care innovation fund on top of the transfer payments, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper swiftly rejected that appeal, delivering the message through a television interview that the premiers learned about while they were meeting.

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Other efforts have been hobbled by resistance from Alberta, which stands to receive a dramatic boost in its funding under Ottawa's plan, which involves smaller annual increases in transfer payments to the provinces but the amounts would be calculated on population numbers alone.

B.C. Premier Christy Clark, the host of the conference, was able to claim a unified front – to a degree. The 10-year funding plan, unilaterally established with no consultation with the provinces, is "unprecedented and unacceptable," she said.

Despite the rhetoric, Mr. Harper still faces a disunited group split along east-west lines.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the divide over health care follows the lines of the growing Western economies versus the rest of the country. "There are two realities in Canada. There are the economies of oil, gas and potash – and others."

Ms. Clark said last week that the formula needs to be age-adjusted to reflect the fact that seniors require more expensive health care, and provinces like British Columbia with a greater share of senior citizens will be unfairly squeezed. By showing how the new formula could affect seniors, Ms. Clark is seeking to tap into a base of voters that leans Conservative.

"I think there is still opportunity to collaborate on this – because the alternative isn't something most Canadians would want," Ms. Clark said.

Saskatchewan, which stands to benefit from a formula that rewards fast-growing resource economies, is also shying away from the notion of tying the transfer in part to seniors' care, but didn't go as far as Alberta in endorsing a strict per-capita funding model. While seniors are "very important," the health transfer is "not the only way to deal with the issues surrounding seniors," a spokeswoman for Premier Brad Wall said in an e-mail Monday evening.

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She said new funding formula will create 13 separate health care systems with vastly different levels of service. "I think Canadians want one national system with comparable levels of servcice."

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter appears onside with a campaign to appeal directly to seniors.

He said Canadians can tune out a debate about dollars: "What they respond to are arguments that are couched in human terms, about who is going to be hurt," he said in an interview.

The Manitoba Premier said specifics on messaging around seniors will be clarified as leaders finish their meeting on Tuesday.

But, added Premier Greg Selinger, "it's very clear that seniors are among the higher consumers of health care in the latter stages of life. ...That's clear everywhere in the country."

That approach rankled Alberta Premier Alison Redford.

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"I agree that dialogue is important," Ms. Redford told reporters. "I'd like to see both sides come back to the table."

But she was not keen on B.C.'s proposal to reopen the deal to weight the formula to benefit seniors – a change that would disadvantage the youthful Albertan population. Alberta prefers the Flaherty plan to accord health dollars on a strictly per capita basis.

"While Premier Clark's point might be relevant to how she views health-care costs in her province," she said, "all Canadians must be treated the same. As soon as you start to select one particular factor, now you are starting to set up Canadians against each other and that's unfortunate."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has previously called for Ottawa to better fund seniors' care, but the B.C. proposal for the formula to pay more for the elderly would hurt his province. On Monday, Mr. McGuinty stuck to a straight attack on the way the funding plan was delivered. "I was very disappointed to learn that, yet again, the Prime Minister is saying he is not prepared to participate and engage with us."

With files from Josh Wingrove

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About the Authors
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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