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Politics Fighting premiers may be boon for Trudeau over the long term

In one capital, there’s an Ontario Premier planning to make his provincial fall economic statement about criticizing Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax. In another, there’s a Quebec Premier tamping down his most controversial promises, concentrating on getting his government on its feet and showing no interest in picking fights with feds.

In the middle, in Ottawa, is Prime Minister Trudeau.

He must be marvelling that the provincial poles seem to have been reversed.

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Battling Ottawa has long been politically profitable for Quebec politicians, separatist or federalist, while Ontario has tended to eschew pitched battles, despite differences. That was true in the days of Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre, and at many times since.

But now it’s Ontario’s Doug Ford who has focused a lot of his first few months in office on combating Mr. Trudeau’s federal Liberals.

He is fighting Mr. Trudeau’s carbon-tax plan, but not only. He is also blasting the federal government over border crossers, for example. And he is explicitly telling people to defeat Mr. Trudeau.

That’s rare for a Premier. Especially an Ontario Premier. Particularly a newish one. Usually, they pledge a willingness to work with other levels of government, even when they don’t mean it.

Yet, the Ford government’s fall economic statement will reportedly include a series of features intended to highlight the costs of Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax.

Think of it: This will be the Ford government’s first update on the province’s finances – which they have promised to alter substantially – and instead of sticking to provincial business they’re telling reporters they will use it as a mallet for clubbing the feds.

In contrast, Quebec Premier François Legault has been sticking to his knitting.

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His Coalition Avenir Québec ran an election campaign that was chock full of potential points of conflict with Ottawa – notably plans to cut the number of immigrants headed for Quebec and to bar public officials from wearing religious symbols. Mr. Legault, a former Parti Québécois minister, heads a soft-nationalist, small-c conservative party whose politics are more aligned with federal Conservatives than Liberals.

But Mr. Legault, leading a government full of rookies, appears to have decided to focus on his own business first.

That promise to bar public servants from wearing religious symbols has proved so laden with complaints and contradictions – the government had to make concessions so existing employees such as teachers wouldn’t lose jobs, for example – that the CAQ has kicked the can down the road, to the spring. The federal Liberals are relieved by the respite.

Mr. Legault’s government may still cut immigration numbers; Quebec has control over the selection of economic immigrants under a federal-provincial accord. But the Premier hasn’t launched a war to demand Ottawa take part in his unworkable plan to expel immigrants after three years if they don’t learn French.

Behind the scenes, many Liberal MPs have worked to build relationships with the many new CAQ MNAs.

Mr. Legault won’t join Mr. Ford’s campaign against the carbon tax, largely because it’s not his issue. Many Quebeckers want action against climate change, but even those who don’t care aren’t pressing him to undo Quebec’s cap-and-trade system. Why stick your finger in a hornet’s nest?

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For that matter, why would a newly elected premier rush to pick a fight with Mr. Trudeau’s federal Liberals who are, according to Nanos Research opinion polls, way more popular in the province than any other federal party? For now, Mr. Legault is better off learning to govern.

Mr. Ford, meanwhile, is mounting a campaign against Ottawa. Perhaps that’s not surprising, on one level – many of his advisers are former aides to ex-PM Stephen Harper, fighting an old fight from a new venue. The Ontario Premier is the point man for conservatives.

Maybe that will end up being good politics for Mr. Ford at Queen’s Park. So far, it seems to have been politically profitable for the Prime Minister. Those Nanos polls have shown Mr. Trudeau’s federal Liberals rising in popularity among Ontarians since Mr. Ford took office in June.

Mr. Trudeau might remember that from his father’s days when things were reversed: As much as a PM might prefer allies among premiers, enemies can help him get re-elected, too.

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