The dark arts of agenda extortion and premiers' walkouts are back.
For a while, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presided over first ministers' meetings that were mostly sweetness and light, even agreeing to a climate-change agenda at a rosy first summit in 2015.
Now it’s a grumpy Confederation.
Nearly every premier is asking for something, upset about something or blaming Mr. Trudeau for not acting on their province’s problems.
Four provinces are now against Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley wants Ottawa to put up billions to defray the costs of the 7,000 rail cars it intends to buy to get more oil to market. She and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe demanded the embattled oil sector and the damage to their economies be specifically counted on the agenda. Everyone wants money. And Ontario’s Doug Ford doesn’t want Mr. Trudeau to set the agenda.
So on Thursday morning, as premiers headed to Montreal to open their talks at a dinner that evening, Mr. Ford’s office let it be known that the Ontario Premier might walk out on Friday if Ottawa didn’t specifically put his items on the agenda – for instance the cost provinces bear for asylum-seekers and the impending closure of the GM plant. Mr. Ford didn’t want to be lectured to by federal ministers, his staffers huffed.
And so the political theatre of first ministers' meetings is back.
When Jean Chrétien was prime minister, then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein regularly cut out early, usually expressing some frustration. Quebec’s Parti Québécois premiers invariably had a beef. Many premiers regularly demanded Ottawa put their priorities on the agenda.
This Prime Minister isn’t used to that. Stephen Harper didn’t hold many first ministers' meetings, and Mr. Trudeau campaigned on making them a regular thing again. Now he has to face a room of premiers who are as much against him as for him, for a variety of reasons.
Ms. Notley is usually one of Mr. Trudeau’s closest allies, but that’s not good for her with a provincial election coming in May, nor with an oil glut and bitumen bubble wreaking economic havoc in Alberta. She has to demand Ottawa do more. So she and Mr. Moe made a demand that oil-industry issues get their own place on the meeting’s agenda.
Mr. Ford, Mr. Moe and New Brunswick’s new Progressive Conservative Premier Blaine Higgs have all joined the same lawsuit against Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax. The three acted like allies as they arrived.
But the Ontario Premier was trying to make it more than that – into a general rebuke of Mr. Trudeau.
It’s not about the agenda. It’s a grandstand play to send a simple signal that they don’t agree with Mr. Trudeau’s priorities.
The premiers, of course, don’t have to sit and listen if they want to talk. Mr. Ford complained about federal ministers giving lectures, because three – Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc – were set to speak. But their 10-minute PowerPoint presentations weren’t going to dominate the seven hours of meetings.
The formal agenda has two hours and 45 minutes devoted to economic issues – even if Ottawa called it “trade diversification, clean growth and economic competitiveness.” An hour of the agenda was set aside for a round table where premiers could raise whatever they want.
Never mind that. The formal agenda wasn’t the point. The point was picking a public fight with Mr. Trudeau over priorities.
Mr. Ford was never going to find a troop of premiers behind him if he tried to stage a boycott – though the Ontario Premier’s staff insisted into Thursday evening that he still might.
Mr. Moe wasn’t going to fly to Montreal and turn around because of the agenda’s wording. “I don’t think it matters at this point,” he said. He said he’d make his point no matter what. “I have a voice,” he said. “I’m going to use it.”
Mr. Ford has a voice, too. But this wasn’t about being heard behind closed doors. It was about being seen in public pushing back against Mr. Trudeau. In general, Mr. Trudeau now faces a group of premiers who don’t want to let him set the tone.