We learned two things from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s back-to-back-to-back meetings with opposition leaders and some premiers this week.
First, there is sufficient goodwill among the governing Liberals, the Bloc Québécois and the NDP for a stable Parliament devoted to a progressive agenda focused on fighting climate change, supporting affordable housing, further restricting gun ownership and introducing some form of national pharmacare.
Second, the real opposition to that progressive agenda will come from certain premiers. The question is: Will Ontario Premier Doug Ford be one of them? Even though Mr. Ford has invited the premiers to meet in Mississauga on Dec. 2, the answer is probably not.
The millions of middle-class voters, many of them immigrants, who live in suburban communities surrounding downtown Toronto are wondrously hard to predict. In this decade, they voted as a block for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and then Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Provincially, they voted for Liberal Kathleen Wynne’s progressive agenda and then for Doug Ford, a populist Progressive Conservative. Last month, they voted for the Trudeau Liberals once again.
“There does seem to be something in the body politic that, over time, puts an opposing party at the other level of government,” says David Cameron, a political scientist who recently completed his term as dean of arts and science at University of Toronto.
Ontario is not unique. After the Liberals arrived in government in Ottawa, NDP premier Rachel Notley was replaced by the United Conservative Party’s Jason Kenney in Alberta, and Liberal premier Philippe Couillard by the Coalition Avenir Québec government of Premier François Legault, to cite just two examples.
“People don’t seem to be troubled by tensions between the provincial governments and the federal government,” Prof. Cameron observed. They positively enjoy it.
When Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill work together, big things happen. Progressive Conservative premier Bill Davis collaborated with Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau on everything from energy policy to repatriating the constitution in the 1970s and 1980s.
When Ontario and Ottawa fight, it’s a huge fight, such as the struggle over health-care funding between PC premier Mike Harris and Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien in the 1990s. (Mr. Harris won.)
Mr. Ford has made common cause with Mr. Kenney and other conservative premiers against Ottawa’s carbon tax. Now Mr. Kenney is demanding much greater autonomy for Alberta, including changes to the equalization formula. The pugilistic Mr. Ford must be tempted to join him.
But the Ontario Premier’s popularity plummeted after last spring’s budget, which was filled with ill-planned spending cuts. In response, he shuffled his cabinet and senior staff and then went into hiding.
To recover politically, Mr. Ford will need federal help on some big infrastructure projects, including public transit. And the Premier saw how suburban Ontario voters rejected Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives in the federal election. So all-out war with Ottawa is probably not in the cards.
That said, Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ford do not get along. The Liberals’ high-spending progressive agenda is anathema to Ford conservatism. And Mr. Ford sympathizes with the grievances of his fellow conservative premiers.
“People in Alberta, people in Saskatchewan … they just feel like they’re being ignored,” he told reporters earlier this month. “I’ve never seen this country so divided, but we have to stay united.”
Mr. Ford doesn’t do nuance, but he’s going to have to try, by supporting his fellow premiers in confronting Ottawa over the hated carbon tax and other issues, while working co-operatively with the federal government on infrastructure and other files.
“Autonomist” is a popular word these days. Mr. Legault is demanding greater autonomy for Quebec, Mr. Kenney for Alberta and Premier Scott Moe for Saskatchewan.
The irony is that of all the provinces, Ontario is best able to assert autonomy. With a population of more than 14 million and a GDP of about $854-billion, as a sovereign state it would resemble the Netherlands in size.
And a whole new economy is emerging in Ontario, anchored in the Toronto-Waterloo technology corridor. This burgeoning high-tech industry is the new oil sands.
But voters appear to be more focused on provincial issues, such as a possible teachers strike, than on seeking greater independence.
If there is to be conflict between Ottawa and the provinces, Ontario won’t lead the fight.
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