Other than Chrystia Freeland, who continues to have the unenviable job of dealing with the U.S. administration of Donald Trump on the trade file, there is no one in this week’s federal cabinet shuffle who got a more thankless assignment than Dominic LeBlanc.
The former fisheries minister was named Minister of Intergovernmental, Northern Affairs and Internal Trade. But pay attention to the first part of that title: intergovernmental. That’s what Mr. LeBlanc has really been brought in to deal with – the fractious state of the federation. It’s an increasingly uneasy situation that’s threatening to become even more unstable in the coming year.
The interprovincial issues creating the current disharmony are well-known: pipelines, the carbon tax, equalization, immigration. The path to peace on some of these files is nearly impossible to see – Mr. LeBlanc’s keen political sensibilities notwithstanding. There was likely no one in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal caucus better suited to dissipate some of the political animus that exists among the country’s premiers than the Prime Minister’s one-time babysitter from New Brunswick.
The biggest problem for the Trudeau government, and now Mr. LeBlanc, is the emerging conservative coalition in Canada. It starts with Doug Ford in Ontario and spreads west. You have a conservative premier in Manitoba, Brian Pallister, a conservative premier in Saskatchewan, Scott Moe, and, in a year’s time, you are likely to have a conservative premier in Alberta, Jason Kenney. And in the case of Mr. Ford and Mr. Kenney, you have hardened ideologues who will do nothing that appears to be assisting a Liberal government in Ottawa.
In fact, it’s clear these men would love to see a Conservative government under federal Leader Andrew Scheer running the country next year and are likely to do everything in their power to make this happen. If that includes running interference for Mr. Scheer on hot-button issues like immigration and the carbon tax, his provincial proxies are happy to do it.
There are some issues that will be easier to deal with than others for Mr. LeBlanc. British Columbia, for instance, is unhappy about having a pipeline stuck down its throat but has few weapons to combat it beyond the courts. On that front, we’re still waiting for a couple of important rulings. There is not going to be anyone who is going to dissuade Premier John Horgan from withdrawing his efforts to get a judge to help him shut the project down. So that will play itself out the way it plays itself out.
Mr. LeBlanc might be able to broker a peace around equalization by promising talks to reopen a national discussion around the current formula, which was just extended until 2024. But there is unlikely to be anything he can do in the immediate future that is going to satiate Mr. Moe and, eventually, Mr. Kenney, who are furious with the existing arrangements. (This anger, I guarantee you, will disappear should the Conservatives take over on Parliament Hill in 2019.)
Most of Mr. LeBlanc’s time, however, is likely to be spent dealing with the provinces over the carbon tax. Again, he is up against an almost impenetrable ideological divide – with climate deniers and tax fighters on one side, and Quebec and a couple of other provinces on the other.
Not one of the premiers of a conservative persuasion is giving up an inch in this conflict, other than maybe Mr. Pallister, who has signalled he will bring in an initial carbon tax but won’t raise it to the levels Ottawa has demanded. Then again, if he sees his provincial counterparts not paying it, maybe he’ll decide not to impose one either. (Unless he already has plans for the money the tax would raise.)
I would imagine it may fall to Mr. LeBlanc to simply sit down with the Doug Fords of the world and explain how the situation will ultimately play out – that Ontario is going to get a carbon tax whether it wants one or not. And so is Saskatchewan and so is Alberta, should Mr. Kenney ascend to power next May and eliminate the tax NDP Premier Rachel Notley imposed in exchange for a pipeline.
As much as conservatives are running against the tax, Mr. Trudeau and his party ran on putting a price on carbon to help save the planet. The credibility of both sides is at stake. And now it’s Mr. LeBlanc’s job to navigate those treacherous waters.