Skip to main content

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rises to speak during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on Sept. 24, 2020.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Canada’s premiers have effectively scuttled Justin Trudeau’s Throne Speech – though in truth, the Liberal Prime Minister’s promises of reform to long-term care, child care and pharmacare never had much hope of being realized.

Mr. Trudeau’s single greatest weakness as Prime Minister is his unwillingness to do the heavy lifting needed to make this federal system of government work.

In the critical opening weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, the system did work. But what was once an emergency is now the hard, unrelenting slog of containment. Mr. Trudeau does not slog.

Instead, his Throne Speech offered a gaggle of commitments: “a Canadawide, early learning and child-care system," “accelerating progress on national universal pharmacare," and “new, national standards for long-term care."

Liberals move to extend emergency spending powers, increase new benefits

Throne Speech guide: Parliament debates Trudeau’s plan for COVID-19 and the economy

The biggest problem with these promises – as well as with commitments to dismantle internal trade barriers, eliminate homelessness and create new city parks – is that they lie outside federal jurisdiction, as the premiers sharply reminded the Prime Minister.

Quebec Premier François Legault found the Throne Speech disappointing because it “does not respect the jurisdiction of the provinces in health.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford was equally displeased. “The federal government missed a critical opportunity to commit to a desperately needed increase to the Canada health transfer," he said in a statement.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney called the speech “a fantasy plan for a mythical country that only exists, apparently, in the minds of Ottawa Liberals and Laurentian elites.”

Fulfilling any one of those promises, which Liberals have been making for years, requires provincial consent. That means many rounds of patient, persistent negotiations, with results tailored to each province’s circumstances, and with no guarantee of success. Instead, Mr. Trudeau left the premiers united in their annoyance.

By Thursday afternoon, they had unanimously expressed their “disappointment” with a Throne Speech that lacked funding for health care while promising new initiatives “in areas of provincial and territorial jurisdiction.”

The premiers are asking Ottawa for a $28-billion annual increase to health-care funding, which they need to help contain COVID-19 outbreaks, fund hospital beds and protect seniors in nursing homes. They emphatically do not need weeks of talks on establishing new national standards or launching new programs, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

In the House on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau said that meeting the pandemic challenge is “not just a question of sending money.” Yes. It. Is.

But then Mr. Trudeau may not even mean what his Throne Speech says. “Work with the provinces” is fedspeak for “do nothing" – surpassed, as an empty gesture, only by the promise of a task force, as in the commitment “to ensure a feminist, intersectional response to this pandemic and recovery” that will be “guided by a task force of experts whose diverse voices will power a whole of government approach.” Really.

The Throne Speech could have focused on areas of federal jurisdiction, such as defence, transportation and immigration. But there was not a word about the military, no real help for crippled airlines, and nothing meaningful on immigration.

There were welcome commitments to extend financial aid to businesses and to reform Employment Insurance, two areas where Ottawa has the power to act on its own.

But most of the Throne Speech was simply lazy: a grab bag of promises that this government has no ability to deliver, especially with an election expected by next spring, when the document will be repurposed as the Liberal election platform.

In his first mandate, Mr. Trudeau did at times succeed in strong-arming the provinces – compelling them to follow federal priorities for health-care funding, imposing carbon taxes on provinces that lacked their own. The result was the resurgence of the Bloc Québécois in Quebec and the arrival of a new separatist party in the West, led by Jay Hill, who was house leader in Stephen Harper’s second administration.

By the beginning of the second mandate, federal-provincial tensions had become so grave that Mr. Trudeau put Chrystia Freeland, perhaps his most capable minister, in charge of intergovernmental affairs, with a mandate to repair the damage her Prime Minister had wrought.

But now she’s Finance Minister, and Mr. Trudeau is back to his old ways. Luckily, there is little chance that anything he promised will come true.

Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct