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Why provincial leaders are playing political poker

Why Canada’s premiers and other provincial leaders should be placing their bets during this federal election campaign. (And why they maybe shouldn’t.)


 
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (2nd R) speaks during a news conference following a meeting of provincial and territorial premiers in Ottawa January 30, 2015. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

(Chris Wattie/Reuters)

There have been moments during this election campaign when you could have sworn you were watching a first ministers’ conference—and a rancorous one, at that. The campaign was barely two weeks old when Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne branded the Harper government “mean-spirited” for refusing to co-operate with her proposed Ontario pension plan. The Prime Minister parried, deriding the pension plan as a “Kathleen Wynne payroll tax hike.”

Brad Wall, the Saskatchewan premier, hit the airwaves crying out for federal party leaders to delve into imbalances in the equalization formula—that worthiest of faint-hope causes. Then there was Pierre Karl Péladeau, who, though not a premier, has been acting like one in campaign appearances alongside the Bloc Québécois’s Gilles Duceppe. A couple of weeks ago, the PQ’s always quotable leader mused about laying claim to post offices, Canadian warships and CF-18s, should Quebecers ever vote for independence. “These are contributions that were made by Quebecers through the federation in the hundreds of billions of dollars,” he shrugged to reporters in Rimouski, Que. “It belongs to us.”

Federal elections have always provided provincial leaders with a low-risk, high-reward platform to troll for headlines and settle old scores. But few national campaigns have seen them assert themselves as frequently, and as forcefully, as this one. Perhaps that’s because few incumbent prime ministers have engaged them as enthusiastically as Stephen Harper, who has expanded his roster of provincial enemies beyond Queen’s Park. Even as he sparred with Wynne, the PM was tilting at Alberta’s rookie NDP premier, calling tax increases ushered in by Rachel Notley a “disaster” that Albertans would reject.

Or perhaps it’s a case of pent-up emotion. Since 2009, Harper has flouted the convention of regular first ministers’ conferences, opting instead for department-level negotiation, occasional one-on-ones with individual premiers and strategic increases to federal-provincial transfers. The provincial pols fulminated, but were ultimately forced to swallow their anger. When the Harper government presented them with a take-it-or-leave it offer in 2011 to increase the health care transfers by six per cent per year for five years, none had the temerity to leave money on the table. So things have gone for the last nine years.

Now, with the eyes of media trained on the campaign, provincial leaders are seizing the opportunity to air their gripes, some of which are rooted in actual policy questions. Wynne, for one, was rebuffed by the feds when she first floated the idea of enhancing the Canada Pension Plan to head off a looming wave of poverty-stricken seniors, and now faces an uphill battle in selling her Ontario-only Plan B; voters feel like they need every cent of their paycheques. Taking on Harper offers the chance to voice her fears while seeking the ouster of the party blocking her proposed remedy.

Wall, too, has sought to channel media and public attention at a time when the collapse of oil prices has sent an economic shockwave through his province. In mid-August, at the height of the Mike Duffy frenzy, he urged news media and party leaders to refocus on pocketbook issues, including, but not limited to, equalization. “If you can’t talk about it now, during a federal election,” he asked, “then when would you talk about it?”

But this is politics, so as noble as the provincial leaders try to sound, on some level, their attacks boil down to self-interest, or party tribalism. Wynne’s broadsides serve the ends of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who has been a steady Wynne ally, and whose electoral hopes ride heavily on Ontario. Péladeau hopes to revive the calcified federal arm of the sovereignty movement, thus planting at least a few allies in Ottawa. As for Wall, a cynic might regard his plea for substantive debate on the economy as a timely attempt to help the Tories—ideological confederates of his Saskatchewan Party—change the channel from Duffy.

Will any of them have any impact?

Depends on how you define the word, say those who’ve traded fire across the federal-provincial divide. But any pol hoping to force instant policy change is probably in for disappointment. Janet Ecker, a former cabinet minister in the Ontario governments of Mike Harris, recalls roasting the Chrétien Liberals over federal-provincial transfers, claiming the formula was beggaring the provinces. She and her Progressive Conservative colleagues thought they had a good case, she says, “but [the federal policy] didn’t change. Nothing happened.”

Politically speaking, though, both sides got something out of the battle. The Harris government burnished credentials as defenders of Ontario’s interest, while the feds styled themselves as sound fiscal stewards, leaving the Harris government to make politically unpopular spending reductions. “One of the unfortunate truths about Canada,” concludes Ecker, “is that playing federal against provincial, and vice versa, does have a political payback.”

Of course, collecting that payback does not always require a jurisdictional spat. Provincial politicians can deliver votes to federal allies by deploying their local electoral machinery on their friends’ behalf, knowing the favour will come back their way when the next provincial writ drops. They can also stump personally for a candidate; it just requires a careful calculation of whether a provincial leader’s presence is welcome, and whether it might have unintended consequences.

With that in mind, Janice MacKinnon, a former Saskatchewan finance minister in the NDP government of Roy Romanow, has been keenly watching the campaigns in several provinces. In Alberta, she notes, Notley has been conspicuously quiet—aware, perhaps, that Harper and the Conservatives still enjoy strong support in her province, and voters might disapprove of her attacking them. Wynne, in contrast, has gone all-in for Trudeau, appearing repeatedly alongside him in Ontario; pitching him as “a partner” for her province at the federal level; calling for a “new government” in Ottawa.

At first glance, says MacKinnon, her intervention appears to be working. Recent polls show the federal Liberals running first in seat-rich Ontario. The question, she adds, is how it’s playing in parts of the country where cozy ties with Ontario are a political minus. “If you look at the numbers in provinces like Saskatchewan,” she says, “you see people are very skeptical of the Liberals. And one of the many reasons people cite for that skepticism is that, if Trudeau became prime minister, he’d be beholden to the premier of Ontario.”

The same suspicion, it’s worth noting, simmers in Manitoba, Alberta and B.C. So Wynne might be well-advised to step back, now she’s served her purpose. Wall, on the other hand, may yet have cards to play. MacKinnon wonders whether he will resurface late in the campaign with a broadside against the NDP over the issue of pipelines, which he considers central to his province’s economic future. Leader Thomas Mulcair has left the door open to more pipelines, but on the thundering proviso that they “not add significantly to carbon emissions.” One of his star candidates, Linda McQuaig, stirred controversy early in the campaign by saying, “A lot of the oil sands may have to stay in the ground.”

In short, it’s a wobbly plank in the New Democrat platform. But, like Notley, Wall must weigh the benefits and costs of trying to exploit it. Would lashing out at the NDP do much to expand his popularity, or merely solidify it with existing supporters? Would it cut into the NDP’s electoral fortunes? (Saskatchewan recall, has only 14 seats.) Or would it merely strengthen the party in Quebec, where concern about climate change runs high, propelling the party to victory?
It’s all enough to make a provincial leader wonder whether the risks of intervention are as low as advertised. Or the rewards nearly so high.


 

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