Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown
With new premiers in New Brunswick and Alberta, and serious issues around pipelines and oil prices, the time is ripe for Stephen Harper to convene a no-nonsense First Minister's Conference. Such a meeting would also bring some sanity to Ottawa's poor relationship with Kathleen Wynne's Ontario.
It is worth emphasizing here that one of the unique characteristics of Canada's federal system is something dubbed "executive federalism." The key component of summit federalism is commonly known as the First Ministers' Conference or Meeting, which brings together the prime minister, provincial premiers and territorial leaders (along with their officials).
In retrospect, it's hard to believe that there are no provisions in the 1867 Constitution that deal specifically with intergovernmental relations. In fact, the inaugural meeting of first ministers was not held until 1906 – almost 40 years after the birth of Canada. And it would be another 12 years before a second gathering would be convened (before becoming more institutionalized in the 1930s).
These high-level get-togethers are important in terms of meeting the myriad challenges of a large and complex federation like Canada's. It is obviously critical for first ministers, including the prime minister, to meet at least once a year to engage in face-to-face discussions or negotiations.
The point of these conferences is to discuss ideas of pressing federal-provincial concern, to exchange notes and best practices, and to avoid misunderstandings, a misallocation of resources and even duplication. The hope, of course, is to build a consensus, to craft a common policy response, and to work co-operatively to make Canada a more united and stronger federation. But it is critical that these intergovernmental deliberations should be chaired by the prime minister of all Canadians – and thus guided by a broader, national perspective.
After convening an informal working dinner with the premiers and territorial leaders in late 2008 and a First Ministers' Conference in early 2009 (to discuss the global economic slowdown), there has not been another high-level gathering for almost six years. Given the federal nature of our country, this gap in meetings is not a healthy development in intergovernmental affairs.
It's fair to say that the Prime Minister takes a pass on these sessions so as to dodge persistent provincial carping, a milieu of ganging-up on the prime minister, and an endless stream of mostly financial demands from the various premiers. It is probably also true that Mr. Harper detests these meetings because he can't control the conferences or those sitting around the table.
But these are not persuasive arguments to avoid first minister gatherings like the plague. To be sure, these meetings are an integral component of our governance and cohesiveness.
However, there has been a regrettable tendency on the part of the Harper government to rely on reference cases and the Supreme Court of Canada to resolve federal-provincial disagreements. But this is not the optimal way of dealing effectively with intergovernmental disputes and differences in Canada.
At the moment, there are a series of significant policy issues – including relations with the United States, infrastructure spending and changes to employment insurance – that are not getting the proper political attention. And the same goes for other issue areas like indigenous peoples, health care funding and the fiscal imbalance. Furthermore, the premiers should hear directly from the Prime Minister on the current status of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with the European Union (which they will all, presumably, have to ratify).
Accordingly, the Prime Minister needs to take a leadership role and start working purposefully with his provincial and territorial counterparts. By not doing so, he is undermining the proper functioning of a federal state – and weakening Ottawa's central role in the process.
By studiously avoiding federal-provincial deliberations, what happens to Canada's overarching national voice? Who will push for the wider national interest around the first ministers' table? And why not take advantage of such a gathering to reassert the federal government's legislative competence over interprovincial transport (pipelines and the like) and aboriginal peoples.
The fact of the matter is that the premiers will move collectively to fill the gap and press ahead with their own policy initiatives in areas like climate change and energy, cities, foreign affairs (like trade missions to China) and pensions. But, again, these are matters that require the input and commitment from both levels of government to work successfully.
Mr. Harper began his first term in office in 2006 by promising "open federalism." It is long past time for him to sit down and meet openly with the premiers and territorial leaders. Refusing to do so, in tandem with leaving provinces to their own jurisdictional silos and ignoring the major intergovernmental challenges of this country, is surely no way to run a federation.