To distract the public mind from those embarrassing photographs of Justin Trudeau in blackface or brownface, the Liberals have been releasing major policy announcements every day. Tuesday was all about the environment, with a new, uncosted, commitment to reduce carbon emissions.
Which brings up a central question of this election campaign: Is the Liberal approach to working with provincial governments the right one? The evidence suggests the answer is no.
When it comes to federal-provincial relations, Mr. Trudeau is very much his father’s son. Like Pierre Trudeau, Justin Trudeau believes that, on certain key issues, Ottawa must act in the national interest.
Trudeau 1.0 believed the national interest required government intervention in the oil and gas sector, so that energy costs in Ontario and Quebec would remain below world prices. The National Energy Program proved both ruinous and ineffective, which is why Brian Mulroney scrapped the program when he became prime minister.
But Mr. Mulroney also believed in Ottawa’s nation-building role. The Progressive Conservative prime minister secured unanimous agreement with the premiers on constitutional reform. Unfortunately for Mr. Mulroney, provincial elections brought a new slate of premiers who opposed and ultimately defeated the Meech Lake Accord.
Liberal prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were keen to impose national standards on how the provinces delivered health care. They failed, but only after years of name-calling and acrimonious first-ministers meetings.
Stephen Harper took a very different approach. On the Conservative prime minister’s watch, the federal government pretty much stuck to its constitutional knitting, which brought an end (more or less) to decades of warfare between Ottawa and the provinces, while also weakening the influence of the federal government.
Justin Trudeau resolved to restore that influence and he had a pretty good run, at first. He convinced the provincial governments to reform and strengthen the Canada Pension Plan. He bribed and browbeat them into realigning their health-care priorities toward home care and mental health.
And he got them to agree to impose a price on carbon, either through direct taxation or a cap-and-trade system. But then, just as with Mr. Mulroney, provincial elections produced a coalition of premiers opposed to his scheme. In response, the Liberal government imposed a carbon tax in those provinces where the provincial government refused to implement one. Which brings us to today.
Meeting the new targets of even lower emissions by 2030 and of net zero emissions by 2050 will require strong measures that are bound to have an economic impact. Support from the provincial governments will be essential. But the Liberals are at war with Jason Kenney in Alberta, Scott Moe in Saskatchewan, Brian Pallister in Manitoba, Doug Ford in Ontario and Blaine Higgs in New Brunswick over the carbon tax.
“We’re fighting conservative politicians and premiers at every turn,” Liberal candidate Catherine McKenna, the environment minister in Mr. Trudeau’s government, told reporters. Such premiers “would rather spend money fighting climate action in court than fighting climate change.” And if Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister, “he would cut the programs that we have brought in.”
Yes he would, which is why it is such a mistake for Ottawa to attempt to impose its will on the provinces. Achieving broad provincial support for national priorities – the kind of support that crosses party lines – is messy and slow and fraught. Sometimes, as with the new national securities regulator, agreement is asymmetrical: adopted by some provinces and not others.
Progress can be glacial: It took a decade to negotiate and ratify the trade agreement with the European Union, in part because both Conservative and Liberal governments worked hard to keep all the provinces onside.
But the alternative is endless warfare, rising support for separatist movements, and laws that don’t survive a change in government.
The Liberals are also proposing a national pharmacare program. A report by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins priced such a program at $15.3-billion annually, once fully implemented, and per capita funding would be higher in some provinces than in others. Many meetings lie ahead.
If, in the end, the federal government imposed pharmacare despite provincial opposition, the ugliness could breed increased support for sovereignty in Quebec and Alberta, and a cold war between Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. Better to go slowly and proceed only with consent. But that isn’t Justin Trudeau’s way.