One sign of Canada’s slow progression away from its worst excesses is that Ottawa reporters no longer even pay much attention to the functioning of our federal processes and institutions. When I got here in 1994 and the (even) older hands showed me around the Gazette office, one of the first things they pointed out was the sofa they’d bought in 1990 for power-napping during the round-the-clock first ministers’ pow-wows Brian Mulroney convened to save the Meech Lake accord. Premiers would arrive for dinner and stay for days, to their dismay. And as the CBC-Globe axis of grimness would repeat, The Very Fate of The Nation depended on every instant.
Today Stephen Harper met the premiers, and nothing happened. This is a kind of innovation, and much has happened to get us to this point.
Recall that Dominion-Provincial conferences were already old hat by the time Pierre Trudeau became Lester Pearson’s justice minister in the mid-’60s. First under Pearson and then as Prime Minister, Trudeau would turn such pow-wows into an art form. Driven partly by business Trudeau had left unfinished and largely by a desire to beat Trudeau on Trudeau’s own turf, Mulroney multiplied his high-tension marathon meetings with the provinces.
In 1980 Donald Smiley coined a term for all of this: Executive federalism, defined as “the relation between elected and appointed officials of the two orders of government.” Dalhousie University professor Jennifer Smith was not alone when she perceived “the unmistakable whiff of elitism” in all this: “The few public meetings between elected leaders — the summits — have a stage-managed air about them, and generally are carefully orchestrated by officials behind the scenes.”
But each of the last three prime ministers has introduced important variations on Trudeau-Mulroney-style executive federalism. Jean Chrétien broke the habit. Paul Martin, who had spent his entire adult life watching Trudeau-Mulroney federalism and was fond of whatever Chrétien opposed, sought to re-establish the old ways. Harper has been the most surprising.
In some ways it seemed as though Chrétien had quit executive federalism cold turkey; he was elected only a year after the Charlottetown referendum and he seemed amazingly aloof from the provinces when he started out. In fact he had a simple rule: he would only meet the premiers if success was assured. No more marathon negotiations would be allowed. Deals would be pre-cooked by officials. Chrétien would only call a meeting when there was nothing left to do but sign — or when a deal was close enough that a little prime ministerial elbow grease would close the remaining gaps. It brought the temperature of federal-provincial relations down and it was tremendously reassuring, because for three years before Chrétien came along Canadians had gotten used to a guarantee of failure, not success, in federal-provincial relations.
But it’s important to point out that Chrétien’s relations with the premiers weren’t nearly as aloof as they seemed at the time. First, he’d spend a week on the road with most of them every year, at the front of the plane during the Team Canada trade missions. A lot of federal-provincial business got transacted on those trips. There’s a PhD thesis awaiting anyone who wants to study that phenomenon.
Second, Chrétien’s cuts in transfers to the provinces, whether necessary or not, put tremendous strain on federal-provincial relations and made a string of formal fed-prov meetings essentially inevitable. One of the most surprising factoids in Chrétien’s autobiography is the revelation that during a decade as PM, he met his provincial colleagues seven times in formal meetings.
Still there was no regularity or predictable rhythm to the meetings and it was reasonable for Paul Martin to promise greater frequency and collegiality. He tried hard to deliver. Where Chrétien had preferred meetings to be pre-cooked by mandarins, Martin wanted preparation kept to a minimum because he was romantic about the give-and-take around the conference table. This brought a return to tension, improvisation and exploding timetables. At first Martin thought he could also insert democratic scrutiny into the process by insisting that these meetings had to take place live on camera. When the premiers dismissed that idea outright, Martin relented and was, forever after, very upset when reporters reminded him of his original intentions.
Still, Martin’s heart was in the right place. Chrétien had no normal, routine working relations with the premiers. Martin wanted to change that, and at least his ambition — convening the boys to fix health care, fiscal federalism and aboriginal relations — was laudable.
Harper was supposed to be province-friendly, and in one big way — the scale of federal transfers to the provinces — he’s been friendly enough to choke a horse. But he hasn’t been sociable. He had the premiers over for dinner a couple of months after becoming PM and decided he didn’t like the 13-to-1 odds one bit. Harper’s dealings with the premiers since then have been characterized by conspicuous effort to drive expectations down as low as they will go, and to wrong-foot the premiers so they cannot arrive with a coordinated joint agenda of demands. If Chrétien would only meet if results were guaranteed, and Martin only if drama was guaranteed, Harper meets only if drama and results are banished. He meets the premiers to see them close up and to hear them out. And that’s it. Decisions come later — or earlier, without warning, with a goal to pre-empting whatever they’re planning to demand, a trick I suspect he’ll use before next January’s “real” FMM.
I should say I mean no criticism of any of these prime ministers, although as you can tell, with Martin it’s hard to resist. Each was responding to the pathologies of his predecessor’s manner, and the changes of style may each, in most cases, have been necessary and helpful. But I’m warming to Harper’s way of doing things. Executive federalism does take decisions away from direct mechanisms for accountability. It does inflate the importance of the day’s agenda item and discourage perspective. It encourages the two levels of government to get into each other’s hair. The first ministers’ meeting, with its grandstanding, its one-upmanship, its hasty compromises, has been viewed as a necessary evil of Canadian federalism. It’s fascinating to watch Harper demur.