Liveblogging the First Ministers' Meeting

When the only tool you have is a shovel...

… everything starts to look like a hole. Which is now no longer called a hole, but an infrastructure investment opportunity, so please update your talking points accordingly. (For yesterday’s liveblog, click here.)

7:42:06 AM
Good morning, federal-provincial jurisdictional sports fans ! We’re here outside Old City Hall, where, in an unwelcome development, the pre-meeting ins are taking place on the front steps – the outside front steps, in the bitter, freezing cold. I’m not sure how much realtime liveblogging I’m going to be able to do before actual, no-kidding frostbite kicks in.

I arrived at nearly exactly the same time as BC Premier Gordon Campbell, who turned up in a car, unlike ITQ, and as such was happy to stand outside for a few minutes to talk about shovels, and readiness as his aides – unaccustomed to the brutality of the central Canadian winter, shivered beside him.

Hey, there’s the PM! Who doesn’t have anything to say to us, other than good morning, and that he plans to focus on the economy. Never have I been so relieved to hear him say so little.

7:48:53 AM
Fashion note; the PM is wearing the same coat and scarf has he did the day he visited Rideau Hall.

7:55:27 AM
I’m sorry, y’all, I just couldn’t stick it out — minus thirty is just too darned cold to liveblog in the open air. I’ve retreated to the makeshift media gallery, where Danny Wiliams – of whom we saw neither hide nor hair yesterday – is explaining to the assembled press that his focus is on employment insurance – “we really should pump up EI!” – and not tax cuts, although he’s not categorically opposed to the latter.

8:00:13 AM

I nearly forgot to mention it, but the Finance minister has been spotted as well – he breezed past the ice-encrusted media throng, reminded us that this really is a genuine consultation exercise, flapped his trademark green tie and disappeared into the warmth.

8:02:33 AM
Danny Williams sure has a lot to say, doesn’t he? At least he’s doing it inside, and not out front. He hopes this isn’t just “window-dressing” by the PM – yes, someone used that word in the question; he didn’t just drop it into the discussion. Also, yesterday’s meeting with the aboriginal groups went very well, apparently.

8:04:34 AM
The premier is now trying to escape, having realized that the meeting was supposed to have started a few minutes ago, and doubtless afraid that all the money will have been divvied up by the time he shows up.

8:27:36 AM
Sorry about the sudden burst of silence – after Williams headed into the meeting, it seemed like as good a time as any to set up camp in the press room — which is in the same place as it was last fall; ridiculously far from the action, not to mention – more importantly, at least at this precise moment – the cafeteria. That’s where I am now, and if you’re watching Global, there’s a slight chance that you’ll see me in the background of the standup going on right now; the networks, deprived of a camera-friendly foyer like we have on the Hill, have taken over the front of the room.

8:37:08 AM
The TV reporter closest to ITQ’s perch – who is now in the middle of his third or fourth standup since her arrival – can’t seem to get over the Prime Minister’s interview with the National Post’s John Ivison, in which he – the PM, not Ivison – hinted that middle class tax cuts may be on the way.

8:43:59 AM
Okay, I’m bored of the media room. Time to explore! Maybe this time, reporters will be able to mingle with the delegations. Hope springs eternal!

8:51:56 AM
It occurs to me that before I skip off in search of something to write about, I should probably fill you in on the schedule, at least as far as the official itinerary.

This morning, the premiers will hear from the Governor of the Bank of Canada, Mark Carney, who will brief them on the state of the economy, followed by Jim Flaherty – who is still claiming that nothing has been finalized. Sometime around 1pm, there’s a photo op for the signing of some sort of agreement – I want to say on internal trade barriers, but I’m not sure – before or after which there will be, presumably, some sort of lunch break to allow the various delegations to get together and compare notes on the first half of the meeting.

The afternoon session begins with a visit by HRDC Minister Diane Finley, who will talk about all the wonderful investments the government has made and/or is promising to make in training and retraining programs, after which she will most likely spend most of her time being grilled by the premiers over what she plans to do to improve employment insurance.

Finally, John Baird shows up with a big bag of infrastructure money, which will end things on a high note and ensure that the subsequent scrums – tentatively scheduled for 3:45, but that could be overly optimistic on the part of the organizers – are full of federal-provincial peace, love and harmony.

9:43:12 AM
Hey, remember that mysterious midday signing ceremony photo-op? Apparently, it’s some sort of agreement on interprovincial trade, but don’t get too excited – something tells me that if it was *that* easy to get all the provinces on side, it’s probably pretty much meaningless. Still, it’ll be nice to get out of the media room – as it turns out, we’re not allowed anywhere near the meeting, although we can stand under the walk way and stare wistfully at officials as they pass by overhead.

10:16:08 AM
Okay, I may end up the victim of a CPAC-induced nervous breakdown by the end of the day: I keep glancing over at the television to see Jim Flaherty, which sends me into a panic because I think I’m missing a scrum until I realize that it’s actually footage from last fall. Although to be fair to CPAC, the situation isn’t helped by the fact that the minister will only wear one colour and style of tie.

10:36:22 AM
Again, abect ITQ apologies for the sporadic updates — to make up for it, I’ve sent along some berrycam pics – of the media room and surrounding territory, including the Forbidden Staircase of Mystery – which should be posted soon.

10:40:54 AM
Oh, that figures: it turns out that the much-anticipated 1pm signing ceremony, which was much anticipated mostly because it was the one and only opportunity we were going to get to see the first ministers before the post-meeting scrums, is open to cameras only – and no, berrycams don’t count. (I’ve tried.)

10:52:09 AM
Well, this is a slightly unexpected turn of events: one of the press gallery staffers just announced that Charest would be scrumming in two minutes, which sent all of us scurrying for the door, because – hey, it’s a scrum! A scrum with the premier of an important province, even! At the moment, we are the very definition of a desperate, captive audience.

10:57:06 AM
Okay, before it shows up on some other Hill reporter’s blog, I’d just like to fess up to having a teeny tiny meltdown on the way to the unimic room, which, due to inexplicably tight security and an aggressive lack of common sense, requires us to go through the courtyard – which is outside, and full of snow – just to keep us from using the Forbidden Stairs of Mystery. Anyway, I’m not saying it pushed me over the edge and into a Howard Bealeian tirade at the stupidity of it all, but I can see how someone might have misinterpreted that way. Ahem.

11:08:54 AM
It’s a first ministerial mutiny! Apparently, Stelmach will be following Charest to the mic. Somehow, I doubt *he’s* angry, but you never know.

11:18:44 AM
Oh, for heaven’s sake. We’ve just been informed that the Charest scrum has been cancelled. No Charest. No Stelmach. No excitement – at least, none on camera. I trudged through snow wearing unsensible shoes for this? Man.

11:29:01 AM
Hey, guess what’s happening out front? A surprisingly large contingent of protesters are clustered just outside the barricades, where they are braving the bitter cold to wave placards, demand money for social housing, and pose for the cameras.

11:33:07 AM
I can’t quite get my head around the notion that there may well be a first ministerial battle underway right this minute.

11:45:36 AM
If there *is* a crisis, Ed Stelmach is missing all the action: he’s doing the rounds in the media room at the moment, even though as far as I know, the meeting is still going on upstairs. You’d think he’d want to stick around for the finance minister, at least. Oh, unless Flaherty has handed the mic off to Diane Finley, and he just can’t make himself care about employment insurance.

12:12:51 PM
Maybe someone in the cafeteria has the scoop on what’s going on upstairs. It’s worth investigating, I think – and if, at the same time, a datesquare should find its way into my purse (in exchange for currency, just to be clear), that’s just an unintended bonus.

My fabulous Toronto colleagues have posted the promised pictures, by the way – the quality may not be great, but it should give y’all some idea of the logistical nightmarishness involved in moving from one spot to another.

12:42:53 PM
Okay, I’m not sure if this is the most efficient way to do this, but I just thought I’d make sure that all those provincial delegationeers out there know that, should you be struck with a sudden urge to spin, you are allowed – nay, you are most emphatically encouraged – to come down to the media room. Dimitri is here – beautifully tied, bien sur; he’s no Flaherty – as well as a few other press people.

12:58:53 PM
Have I mentioned The Door, by the way? The Door that exemplifies the organizational thinking behind this conference? The Door is actually one of two doors, both of which lead to the media room, one of which – The Door – is ever so slightly more convenient, since it is right inside the entrance to our little Elba down here. It *would* be more convenient, that is, if it weren’t locked for no reason that anyone, including the security guard in charge of the area, can explain. It’s just the perfect symbol of the pointless security and logistical logjammery that has come to characterize this entire event.

On surveying the layout for the first time, new arrivals to our encampment are frequently heard to wonder, “Who *did* this?” As yet, we don’t have an answer. Maybe nobody did. Maybe it just happened, like the Big Bang.

1:12:18 PM
At least the Infrastructure Minister was able to find us – he’s chatting with Rosemary Thompson on CTV Newsnet as I type this. If you squint, you might even be able to see me in the background doing just that. Ooh, meta.

1:18:54 PM
Rumour has it that a premier may be scrumming “soon”! Unsourced, unconfirmed rumours – those are the best kind. So – do I brave the snow and head for the unimic? Of course. At a certain point, one’s feet just can’t get any colder.

1:26:09 PM
Apparently, the maybe-scrumming premier is … Gary Doer! And possibly Ed Stelmach, but we’ve heard *that* before.

1:30:58 PM
Okay, it’s going to be Doer and Shawn Graham, and they’re going to talk about the agreement on internal trade that the premiers just minutes ago signed for the cameras upstairs.

1:31:59 PM
A historic step forward for trade in our country, y’all! Get excited! Especially you, Premier Graham – he looks like he’s about to drift off to sleep; Doer, meanwhile, is so genuinely thrilled by what he’s saying that he almost, but not quite makes me care about internal trade and labour mobility.

1:35:09 PM
As of 2009, wherever they may roam across this land of ours, professional credentials will be recognized: a nurse will be a nurse, a plumber will be a plumber, a journalist will be a journalist, a — wait, back up. Journalists have credentials? Maybe in Manitoba, mister, but not here.

1:39:25 PM
Doer promises “interesting disagreements” over credentials. Oh, you tease, premier. He notes that it’s all well and good to agree in principle on certain standards for, say, accountants — unless you happen to be an accountant, in which case you might take issue with the requirements, or lack thereof,depending.

1:41:08 PM
Someone asks about the longstanding dispute over construction workers moving between Ontario and Quebec; under this agreement, it will go through a new dispute resolution process.

2:02:58 PM
The photo gallery has been updated to include a shot of The Door, as well as the icy path to the premiers and the aforementioned unsensible shoes; I should note that I actually do have proper footwear, but I didn’t want to be stuck wearing my boots all day, and it’s just too much of a pain to keep changing back and forth. That’s also why I’ve settled on a wardrobe compromise that involves wearing my hat and fleecy at all times, which does have the misfortune of making me look like a consumptive, or a crazy person, but saves time when we get word that there may be doings a’happening in the upper decks.

2:17:43 PM
Okay, y’all, it’s past time to give an ITQ shoutout to certain members of a provincial delegation that shall remain, for the moment, nameless, who have been filling my inbox with liveblogging goodness from the other side of the barricades, where it seems as though most of them are just as bored and restless as most of us, yet because of the pointless security restrictions, we cannot come together to share the pain.

Also, re: The Cookie Incident: Guess what’s on the menu in the media room? Give up? Nothing – no sandwiches, no salad bar – just a vague wave in the direction of the cafeteria, which closes at 3pm. Oh, and the vending machines, which would, if things went Meech-shaped at the table, eventually be our only source of nourishment.

I wonder what the first ministers are having for lunch. Oddly, PMO hasn’t sent out a menu for today. I smell a scandal!

2:37:23 PM
Apparently, the meeting may be wrapping up considerably earlier than expected – within the next half hour or so, even. I guess that means things are either going really well, or really badly, or maybe the first ministers are as bored as everyone else.

3:00:56 PM
Alright, it turns out I owe an apology – or at least a clarification – to the organizers of this journalistic obstacle course – the Canadian Intergovernmental Conference Secretariat, the Council of the Federation, PMO, PCO, various underemployed minions of Satan … whoever – there were, in fact, substantial quantities of cookies, croissants and turnovers for the media, but for some reason, they chose to put it in the *other* room, where only a few reporters are working, and didn’t bother to tell anyone over here. Still, never let it be said that ITQ is unwilling to admit when she is wrong.

3:27:47 PM
And they’re out! Time for the mad scramble through the snow. David Akin isn’t even wearing a coat, he’s so eager to get to the scrumtorium, which is now upstairs, becausde if there’s one thing we like, it’s random, pointless location changes.

3:31:41 PM
And — alright, it turns out that we were a touch premature in our storming of the Whitton Room: it turns out that the press conference won’t start for another half an hour.

3:34:06 PM
Oh dear. It turns out that the first First Minister to speak will be the Prime Minister, which means that half hour we thought we were going to have to wait just turned into forty-five minutes at best, and quite possibly considerably longer.

3:42:42 PM
I’m so tired, y’all. Honestly, I very nearly plopped myself down in the middle of the staircase, like a slightly bedraggled Von Trapp, only with less singing. *So far*. But there is, at least, an end in sight to this very long, slow-moving, spectacularly frustrating and yet somehow exhausting day.

3:46:36 PM
Apparently, when he does deign to descend upon us, the PM will take four questions – two English, two French – and it’s a testament to how eager everyone is to get out of here that there was nary a grumble at the news.

3:55:36 PM
After as lively a discussion as can realistically be had on first ministerial relations, the gallery has figured out the four questions that will be asked – and not a moment too soon, it turns out, since we just got the two minute warning.

3:58:24 PM
For a room full of journalists, it’s awfully quiet in here. Normally, that tends to augur a more weighty event, but I think we’re just tired.

3:59:31 PM
Oh, there he is – the PM, that is. I didn’t see him come in – he’s not really much for the dramatic entrances. Just like last time, Josee Verner is by his side – as is John Baird, who looks like he’s more than ready to be done with this day.

4:01:24 PM
It’s not that this statement is particularly laden with empty rhetoric and vague generalities, but I figure it’ll probably all be in the eventual press release, so I won’t bore you with the word-for-word transcript.

4:02:24 PM
First question from David Akin – will the measures that he plans to put into the budget be temporary – will they “die” after the crisis has passed? The PM tells him that he’s been very clear with the premiers that now is the time for governments to act, which means significant deficits in the short term. “We know there’s money out there, sitting on the sidelines” – but businesses are afraid to invest, and the rest of us are too spooked to spend.

4:05:30 PM
Finally, an answer to the question: yes, some of these spending measures will be “time limited”; as for the details, all that is in the communique which is being circulated as he speaks. And there it is, too: “Prime Minister and Premiers agree on action for the economy” – in all caps, even. Agree!

4:06:51 PM
Curses! I missed the French question, so I’m not sure if the PM is actually answering it or not. I hate it when that happens.

4:09:52 PM
Tax cuts – something about tax cuts. There was a “very extensive” discussion on that subject during the meeting; as for Michael Ignatieff’s comments, it is important that the middle class “be part of the stimulus”, since the whole economy is based on them, one way or another.

4:11:24 PM
Keith Boag wonders whether the new Conservative anti-coalition attack ads mean that he’s given up on the idea of a kinder, gentler, calmer Parliament; the PM claims that they’re just responding to the ads that supporters of the coalition have been running for the last few weeks. He doesn’t answer the second part of the question, which prompts some audible griping from the media, but he moves on to the second French question, which is about equalization. Quel surprise. He has no plans to cut transfer payments, but that doesn’t mean the formula can’t be examined.

4:16:27 PM
And – wow, that’s it? Was that four questions? I guess so, because now Gordon Campbell is up and praising the “unprecedented” pre-budget consultation. He admits that we won’t know the results until we see the budget, but he’s clearly feeling chuffed.

A reporter asks if any premiers are concerned by the virtual certainty of “structural deficits”, and it sounds like they are, at least in theory, but these are “unprecedented” times.

4:19:43 PM
Jean Charest is lurking at the side of the room. I wonder if he’s aware of Colleague Wherry’s grassroots campaign to draft him as
Prime Minister.

4:23:07 PM
Premier Campbell would like us all to know that there is nothing as difficult as building a budget, and as for the prospect of a coalition, he believes what is important is not what provinces think, but what the people think. Oddly, that doesn’t stop reporters from pressing him further. Coalition – yea or nay? He won’t bite – the closest he’ll come to slamming the coalition is to say that we need “stability”.

4:25:09 PM
It’s Jean Charest, everyone!

4:27:10 PM
Okay, if Charest was, in fact, grumpy earlier in the day, he seems downright jovial now, as he gives his statement twice – first in French, then English.

4:30:17 PM
Still talking – Charest, that is – although he’s finally made it to English, and promises to do it “very rapidly”. Manpower – general consensus, must be compassionate. The EcoTrust is the best model for flowing money into infrastructure projects, and – ooh, there is, as it turns out, a “very real” disagreement on equalization. The PM, says the premier, has “broken his word”.

4:39:22 PM
Not surprisingly, when asked to expound on his equalization conspiracy theor, he does so at length. I can’t pick up all the nuances, but I think we’ve got the gist. Equalization, you may be interested to know, is now in place in nearly every country in the industrialized world; he doesn’t think much of the suggestion put forward by CJAD reporter Brian Lilley that the changes to the formula have put Ontario into a “fiscal imbalance”.

4:45:21 PM
Charest wins the soundbyte war with a fairly passionate burst of provincial chauvinism – they build hospitals! They heal the sick! They feed the hungry! – and promptly ends up in a weirdly tense argument with a CBC reporter over the support that the coalition has in Quebec, which Charest simply refuses to concede is the case. He then primly declines further comment on the issue; he is simply too busy to worry about what federal politicians might or might not think or do. He’s too busy running the government.

4:49:26 PM
Apparently, a PMO official – unnamed, I’m sure – was circulating documents that suggested the Quebec finance minister agreed to the equalization changes; according to Charest, that simply wasn’t the case, and if anyone claims otherwise, they are “misrepresenting the facts.”

4:52:02 PM
Poor Dalton – inevitably, he’s going to be anticlimactic, what with Quebec returning, for the moment, at least, to its traditional role of enfant terrible of Confederation. So much so that the second question he gets is about Charest, and whether he agrees with “his friend Jean” on equalization. No, not exactly, but it’s a civilized, cordial disagreement.

4:57:47 PM
McGuinty stickhandles a question on the Ottawa bus strike – who’s to blame? He’s not going to point fingers, but it’s time for cooler heads to prevail – and something on employment insurance – yes, I fully admit I’m losing steam, and not paying nearly as closely attention as I should, but in my defence, it really has been a long day.

5:00:57 PM
Last question: given the fragility of the economic situation, would it be best for this government to “collapse” after the budget, and – wait, what? Dalton seems a bit baffled by the question as well; interestingly, he doesn’t take sides – unlike Campbell, he really *doesn’t* – except to praise democracy. It’s a good thing.

5:03:03 PM
Can I just pretend I don’t see Brad Wall at the microphone? Really? Oh, fine. He seems happy with today’s meeting, and has a lot of plucky platitudes to describe how he’s looking forward to the future, which is bright and shiny.

5:06:35 PM
David Akin asks about Wall’s support for sectoral assistance – the sector in question, in this case, being the cattle industry, which has been suffering since BSE, and – didn’t he say all this last night? Did nobody else at the table want to talk cows, so now he’s going to take it out on us?

5:09:44 PM
Brian Laghi tries one more time to get a premier to stomp all over the idea of a coalition, and Brad Wall cheerfully repeats his answer from last night: what Canadians need right now is stability, not – that other thing. Boo, coalition, boo!

5:10:48 PM
Okay, that seems to be – hey, it’s over! We survived! And – wow, it’s really dark out. How are we all going to get back to the Hill? Why am I typing while going down a very slippery swirling staircase? These and other questions will be answered – but not here, and not now. The liveblogger is officially out. Have a great rest of the day, everyone!