The photograph on Doug Ford’s Facebook page of last week’s meeting with Justin Trudeau said it all. On one side of the table sits the new Ontario Premier and his aides, grinning confidently. On the other side, the Prime Minister and his aides look seriously unimpressed.
Brace yourself for a chapter like no other in the epic tale of conflict between Queen’s Park and Parliament Hill. Such battles are as old as Confederation, but this one could be a doozy.
There is an assumption out there that Ontario is the “good” province, that Ontarians place the national interest above parochial concerns. History tells a different tale.
In the late 1800s, Liberal premier Oliver Mowat fought Sir John A. Macdonald’s Conservative government tooth-and-nail over how much power the provinces should have. Mowat won in the courts, which is why provinces today are far more powerful than the Fathers of Confederation intended.
As the Second World War ended, Conservative premier George Drew led a successful rebellion by the provinces that prevented Mackenzie King’s Liberals in Ottawa from grabbing provincial taxing powers.
And at the turn of the millennium, Conservative premier Mike Harris outmanoeuvred Jean Chrétien when the Liberal prime minister tried to force provincial governments to meet federal priorities in exchange for increased health-care funding.
As prime minister, Stephen Harper avoided interfering in areas of provincial jurisdiction. But Justin Trudeau’s carbon-tax plan is a return to olden times: Ottawa trying to force provincial governments to accede to federal priorities.
One of Mr. Ford’s first acts as Premier was to scrap his Liberal predecessor’s cap-and-trade carbon tax. In response, Mr. Trudeau is vowing to impose a carbon tax on Ontario and Saskatchewan (which also opposes the tax) on Jan. 1.
The two first ministers are also sparring over refugee claimants who have been crossing the Canada-U.S. border illegally. Before they met on Thursday, Mr. Ford said in a statement that his government will offer no co-operation in housing the asylum seekers, wrongly declaring “this mess was 100 per cent the result of the federal government, and the federal government should foot 100 per cent of the bills.” U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies surely have more to do with it.
In response, Mr. Trudeau told reporters after the meeting that the new Premier did not appear to understand Canada’s obligations under international law.
“So I spent a little time explaining how the asylum-seeking system works and how our system is supposed to operate,” he said. You don’t need the audio to hear the condescension.
Ottawa-Ontario fights are like no other federal-provincial confrontation because Ontario voters, who make up almost 40 per cent of the national population, elect both governments, often sending parties of different stripes to Queen’s Park and Ottawa.
This particular fight, while the latest in a long line, will also be unique because Trudeau advisers Gerald Butts and Katie Telford both worked in the Dalton McGuinty government. So it’s a Liberal-Queen’s-Park-versus-Conservative-Queen’s-Park fight as much as a federal-provincial one.
There will be other conflicts. The Ford government has inherited a large structural deficit and is cutting taxes. This is bound to leave a huge imbalance between commitments and resources.
Expect the Tories to announce a fiscal imbalance between what Ontario taxpayers send to Ottawa and what Ottawa sends back. The fact Ontario receives money from the equalization program will be swept aside. The province gives to Ottawa more than it receives in lots of other ways, and the finance ministry won’t hesitate to enumerate them.
As for trade and tariffs, Mr. Ford says he has Mr. Trudeau’s back in confronting the Trump administration in Washington. But if those tariffs cause serious job losses in Ontario, or the federal government fails to secure a renewal of the North American free-trade agreement, heated accusations will replace solidarity.
It will not be surprising if the next federal election turns into a referendum on both Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Ford.
Although it will also not be surprising if millions of suburban Ontario voters say yes to both men. They’re canny that way.