Justin Trudeau blaming premiers for a national unity crisis that he created is pretty rich.
This Prime Minister’s approach to federalism – which can be summarized as “do as I say, or else” – has premiers from the Bay of Fundy to the Rocky Mountains to the Arctic Ocean in open revolt. But rather than apologize and try to make amends, he is doubling down.
“I think it’s absolutely irresponsible for conservative premiers to be threatening our national unity if they don’t get their way,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters, after six premiers sent him a letter protesting Bills C-69 and C-48, which place new environmental restrictions on pipelines and other resource-based projects.
Except it is Mr. Trudeau who is threatening national unity, not the rebellious premiers.
The Prime Minister’s approach to federalism is similar to that of Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin. They believed that Ottawa had the right and duty to act in the national interest, even if it meant intruding in areas of provincial jurisdiction.
They used federal money and influence in an effort to impose their will in energy policy (Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program); constitutional reform (Mr. Mulroney’s Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords); and health care (the Chrétien and Martin fight for national standards).
Those efforts almost drove Quebec out of Confederation, spawned both the Reform and Bloc Québécois protest parties, and united premiers in opposing federal intrusions in health care. All the federal initiatives ended in failure.
Stephen Harper, as prime minister, rejected this interventionist approach. On his watch, Ottawa stuck to its constitutional knitting; any pan-Canadian initiatives, such as working toward a national securities regulator, were voluntary at the provincial level. Although there were a few minor skirmishes, overall Canada enjoyed a decade of federal-provincial peace under this approach.
But Mr. Trudeau has returned to the bad habit of trying to use Ottawa’s influence and spending power to bend the provinces to his will, this time on environmental issues.
At one point, he had all the premiers agreeing to implement a tax or cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions, just as Mr. Mulroney convinced all the premiers to sign on to the Meech Lake Accord. But Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Trudeau both forgot that provinces have elections. Rebellious premiers killed Meech Lake in 1990. Today, the premiers of New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are refusing to implement a carbon tax, and so Mr. Trudeau is imposing a federal tax on those provinces as punishment.
Those five premiers plus Northwest Territories Premier Robert McLeod sent a letter to Mr. Trudeau protesting Bill C-69, which would toughen environmental assessments on resource-based projects such as oil pipelines, and C-48, which would ban tanker traffic off British Columbia’s northern coast.
“The damage [the two bills] would do to the economy, jobs and investment will echo from one coast to the other,” the premiers warned in the letter. “Provincial and territorial jurisdiction must be respected.” Passing the bills over provincial protests would “risk creating a constitutional crisis.”
But instead of heeding that warning, Mr. Trudeau vowed to press ahead with the legislation.
In the House, Wednesday, he described the letter as “totally irresponsible,” deriding premiers who “blithely ... make claims about threats to national unity if they don’t get their way.” There is no longer any middle ground. With Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer also dead-set opposed to carbon taxes and to C-69 and C-48, the federal election campaign will be the battleground for this issue.
Some people think that Canada can’t move forward unless Ottawa sets and enforces national standards. This is wrong. Federal intrusions into areas of provincial jurisdiction only lead to provinces in revolt. One way or another, Mr. Trudeau’s carbon tax will fail, just as the National Energy Program failed and Meech Lake failed, and a national pharmacare program remains all announcement (such as Wednesday’s) but no progress.
Canada must act to combat global warming. But the provinces must take that action. Ottawa can encourage, co-ordinate, even administer if asked. But it must never impose.
Mr. Trudeau forgot that truth. As a result, he finds himself at war with six premiers. And it’s all on him.
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