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Politics Trudeau’s top-down approach to directing provinces proves to be a dud

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting in Cambridge, Ont., on April 16, 2019.

Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney’s emphatic victory Tuesday in Alberta’s provincial election speaks to the failure of Justin Trudeau’s approach to federalism.

The United Conservative Party premier-designate ran on a platform of restoring growth, but also on confronting the federal Liberals over the carbon tax, over equalization and for just being Liberals. That Mr. Kenney’s UCP won such a huge mandate – 55 per cent of the vote, with a higher-than-usual turnout – tells us how aggrieved Albertans have become on Mr. Trudeau’s watch.

Mr. Kenney is not alone. Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford is already working hard to defeat Mr. Trudeau in the October general election. Why are the premiers of these two powerful provinces so angry? The carbon tax is one reason, but there’s more to it than that.

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The Canadian Constitution, Supreme Court decisions and bitter experience encourage a co-operative approach to running this country. Ottawa has its responsibilities – defence, foreign affairs, criminal law, the money supply – and the provinces have theirs – education, health care, welfare, municipalities. Things work best when each level of government stays in its lane.

In some areas, such as agriculture and the environment, the two levels share jurisdiction. And every generation or so, an issue of transcendent importance – at least in the minds of people living in certain neighbourhoods in Ottawa and Toronto – requires urgent action. Under Pierre Trudeau, it was constitutional reform; under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, it was national standards in health care.

In every case, the Liberal federal government tried to negotiate an agreement with the provinces, failed, then sought to impose its will.

But bringing down the hammer never worked. Pierre Trudeau had to co-operate with the provinces to win the Charter of Rights and Freedoms; Mr. Chrétien and Mr. Martin ended up increasing health-care transfers with no enforceable strings attached.

And the fallout included referendums on Quebec independence, Western alienation and bad will all around.

Stephen Harper’s passive approach to federalism worked much better. During their decade in power, the Conservatives focused on their core areas of jurisdiction and mostly left the provinces alone.

When Ottawa did seek to act in areas of provincial responsibility, such as to establish a national securities regulator, it acted co-operatively. Provinces were treated as true partners who were free to sign on to or stay out of any final agreement, as they saw fit. (Even so, it has taken years under both Conservative and Liberal governments to design a framework the Supreme Court finds constitutional.)

The great advantage of the Conservative approach was that it led to peace and quiet. There was the odd tempest, such as with Newfoundland and Labrador over equalization, but things were calm in the main.

When the separatist Parti Québécois came to power in 2012, premier Pauline Marois couldn’t find a fight to pick with Ottawa because the Harper government respected Quebec’s autonomy. In less than two years, the PQ were back in opposition, perhaps forever.

The planet is warming and human activity is to blame. Every country has a duty to reduce its carbon footprint. Mr. Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna initially forged an accord with almost all the provinces to cut back emissions. But before long, some provinces were offside. Ottawa imposed a carbon tax on the miscreants.

Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick are fighting that tax in court. Mr. Kenney has vowed to scrap his province’s carbon tax. The Ontario government released a radio commercial Wednesday attacking the tax.

Provinces are also at war with each other. Tensions over pipelines between Alberta on the one side and British Columbia and Quebec on the other could become dangerous.

Federal-provincial affairs haven’t been this toxic since the last time a Liberal was prime minister.

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You might reasonably say: Never mind the political consequences. Global warming represents a clear and present danger to our future. If provinces won’t act, the federal government must.

Okay. But how is that working out? With this much provincial opposition, the whole Liberal carbon-reduction plan could end up on the ash heap.

Federalism in Canada works best when Ottawa remains humble, when it respects provincial jurisdiction, when it seeks co-operation rather than confrontation. However serious global warming may be, this country will only lower emissions if everyone agrees, the program is voluntary and provinces remain in control.

Mr. Trudeau, frustrated when carrots no longer worked, brought out the stick. And now look at the mess we’re in.

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