Federalism as viewed from the foyer of the Chateau Laurier: Liveblogging the FMM pre-game show

(For a full rundown of FMM-related events, check the official ITQ guide here.)

12:28:47 PM
The rallying cry of the reporter who turns up at a press conference half an hour early: “Ooh! Free cookies!” As I told the FCM official eyeing me with suspicion, in these uncertain times, one should never turn away from. chocolate chips.

Yes, I’m here in the Quebec suite at the Chateau Laurier, cooling my heels – or as is the case today, given the temperature outside, warming them and every other body part – in anticipation of a post-meeting press conference by the mayors of Canada’s 22 largest cities, a number presumably arrived at so as not to exclude Ottawa (despite the Obama tails that have so shattered the will of Colleague Potter to live).

Just as I was typing those words, however, the microphone was abruptly hijacked by none other than Martha Hall Findlay, the Liberal critic for infrastructure, who has seized the opportunity presented by a room full of otherwise at loose ends journalists to put forward her party’s position on the issue. The opposition, it’s clear, needs no lessons from the devil when it comes to finding work for idle hands.

12:35:52 PM
Julie Van Dusen is quizzing MHF on the sporadically-tense-especially- when-money-is-involved relationship between cities and the provinces; Martha Hall, being no fool, is doing her best not to antagonize either party, although the Van Dusenian questioning is a force to be reckoned with.

12:38:20 PM
And there it is – the first use of the phrase “shovel-ready”, although to her credit, she seemed almost apologetic for falling back on what has already become a cliche.

She summarizes her main points once again – infrastructure good, investment needed, enough love in her heart for both cities *and* provinces – and bids us adieu.

Back to the waiting game.

12:48:22 PM
MHF should’ve waited a few minutes before seizing the podium – the room is filling up in earnest.

12:53:26 PM
The mayors are about to make their entry! Or so we’ve just been told by Maurice whose last name I didn’t catch but begins with a G, the communications wrangler for the FCM. For some reason, I just had an urge to stand up. I think I’ve been hanging out at too many judicial inquiries.

12:54:56 PM
And here they are! Not all of them – I definitely don’t count 22 heads bobbing behind the chair-mayor, and Ottawa’s mayor seems to be missing in action as well. Maurice is explaining the rules and listing the speaking order, and the mayors are trying to look like they’re not just waiting for their turn at the microphone.

12:58:10 PM
First up, it’s Basil Stewart, the chair of the caucus, and despite the lengthy who’s whoing by Maurice, it becomes immediately clear that nobody actually paid attention to the titles. Frantic whispers of “What’s this guy mayor of?” fill the hall. Summerside, Prince Edward Island, it turns out – and he thinks infrastructure spending, specifically more money for water mains, is the best way to ensure the Canadian economy thrives.

Wait, Summerside is a big city? Really?

1:01:11 PM
The mayor of Kitchener follows up, and says much the same thing – I suspect I’ll soon be able to put that on a macro, and then Montreal Mayor Gilles Tremblay does the same thing in French. Cities. Infrastructure. Money.

1:04:34 PM
And now, Mayor David Miller! He has three points to make. Good for him! Cities, he says, are already investing in “modern, 21st century green infrastructure” – and now the federal government wants to be “partners”, but that will require — oh, I can’t imagine what. Yes, money – right now. Immediately. There is no time to lose, because this isn’t just about money. They also need to break out the metaphorical scissors to cut through the red tape, so that the money can be spent in traditional drunken sailor fashion.

1:09:04 PM
The new mayor of Vancouver says that the litmus test isn’t just how much money will be on the table in the upcoming budget, but how fast it can be spent, and how fair the distribution would be. Ooh, that sounds like a mayoral food fight for future FCM gatherings.

1:10:30 PM
And – questions, starting with Julie Van Dusen, who momentarily stumps the entire contingent of mayors by quizzing them on how the costs will break down – will it be in three equal parts, or do they want the feds to pick up the full tab? This leads to a brief moment of unscripted laughter as Julie tries to get the mayor of Kitchener – who seems to be the chattiest of the bunch – to say the words she needs for her clip – that this is the mayors’ “message to Ottawa”. Eventually, he figures out what she wants, and the conch moves on.

1:15:34 PM
Just in case we missed the underlying theme, subtle as it is, FCM officials are now handing out press releases with the headline “More infrastructure funds fast to fight recession, say FCM Big City Mayors”.

1:17:16 PM
“We’re not going to lower the income tax for our citizens,” Tremblay assures the Globe and Mail’s Gloria Galloway in response to a question about the gas tax. Also, what about the disparity between the various cities, some of which are facing soaring unemployment, others are desperate for workers. An Albertan mayor pipes up to explain that, in the case of his city, apparently means linking environmental projects with – wait, did he just say “environmental”? Oh, he’s from Edmonton; that explains it – anyway, environmental projects with jobs, intellectual property, research and development and probably free puppies; I sort of drifted off towards the end.

1:24:11 PM
“Shovel in the ground”. Okay, it’s a start – but can we get away from the shovel imagery? What about bulldozers? Cranes? Wrecking balls?

More confusing circumlocution from the mayors on what exactly they *mean* when they claim there are hundreds of potential infrastructure investments that are already shovel-ready — oh great, now I’m doing it. The answer is; there just are.

1:26:47 PM
The mayor of St. John’s would like to clarify that this is not, in fact, just another list of demands: this is the cities’ response to a request from the federal government for suggestions, and they’re willing to put up “hundreds of signs” to make sure that Canadians know where the money is coming from. Nobody asks about flags, or golf balls, but you can tell we’re all thinking the same thing.

1:28:47 PM
And with that, the “official part” of the press conference is over; there will be scrumming in the hallway outside, but ITQ won’t be there: she’s heading downstairs to wait for the men of the hour.

1:47:59 PM
It’s time for the traditional pre-arrival game of Name That Premier!, wherein we are all forced to admit that not a man or woman among us would recognize Robert Ghiz if we tripped over him.

Don’t look so smug, Brad Wall – we’re not much better when it comes to the rest of you newbies, which at this point means everyone but Charest, McGuinty and Danny Williams.

Apparently, most of the premiers are actually here already, which takes some of the excitement away from the door watching party in the foyer, but we’re assured that they’ll be dragged down to the unimic before the secret plotting session begins.

1:54:15 PM
Still waiting, but I can report that Colleague Wherry is here. Let the saturation coverage begin!

1:55:42 PM
The premiers’ delegations – or possibly confused tourists from Idaho – are starting to cluster beside the unimic. The excitement is palpable.

2:01:25 PM
And – speak of the devil, it’s Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who reminds me of Scott Brison for some reason. As soon as he takes centre stage, he’s asked about the latest proposal from the Assembly of First Nations, which wants at least some of the infrastructure money to flow to reserves. He’s clearly ready for the question, and gives a thorough, if noncommital response about the importance that aboriginal issues have for his province.

2:06:36 PM
Wall gives a quick rundown of what he sees coming out of this meeting – stimulus, basically – and points out that the cattle industry, for instance, has been under stress since the dark days of the BSE border ban. When asked whether he has a number in mind, the premier plays coy – he’s not going to ask the PM for any money that his province isn’t prepared to match, but specific numbers are “elusive” for everyone at the moment.

The upside of an infrastructure program, he points out, is that there was already a deficit – an infrastructure deficit, that is. So it’s a two birds/one stone deal.

2:09:04 PM
CanWest’s David Akin wonders what his reaction will be if Saskatchewan gets less than provinces harder hit by the crisis, and Wall warns against any strategy that would neglect the strengths – like, for instance, his province’s economy.

2:11:32 PM
Interesting: even Wall, who is probably the closest thing the PM will have to an ally around the table during tomorrow’s meeting, has little good to say about the Building Canada Fund – the money didn’t “flow” nearly as quickly as anticipated – but is quick to side with the goverment when asked about the threat of coalition government. He’s against it, in case you wondered.

2:13:49 PM
Minutes To “Shovel-Ready” Reference: Twelve and change. Not bad, premier.

2:14:31 PM
From Saskatchewan to Manitoba, and Gary Doer – the dean of the premiers, I believe – so fresh off the plane that he’s still wearing his coat and scarf. He believes in infrastructure investment – really, has any political leader, provincial federal or municipal, come out against it thus far?

2:19:19 PM
That was an odd tangent – asked a general question about tax cuts, Doer delivered an impassioned tirade on — airport taxes, which apparently put us at a huge disadvantage compared to our “competitive partners”. Yeah, I’m not sure whether that’s an oxymoron or not, but anyway, he then goes back to it a second time – really, airports are apparently the single most important issue on the Manitoban agenda, at least at this precise second. Maybe he had a bad flight – or a really, really good one, with a non-tepid lunch and no lost luggage.

Anyway, a CBC reporter eventually manages, with some difficulty, to get him off that subject and onto the question of money for infrastructure on reserve, as requested by the Assembly of First Nations. He’s in favour, although he stresses that the proof of this meeting, however – the one tomorrow, that is – will be in the budget.

2:24:03 PM
The thorny issue of the national securities regulator briefly rears its head, and Doer notes that there are some recommendations in the Hockin report that make sense, but that it seems to lean towards an SEC-style agency, which is not what Canadians want. Really? What say you, Canadians?

2:25:19 PM
Ah, time for the traditional try-to-trick-a-premier-into-contradicting-his-party’s-federal-counterpart; national environmental standards and assessments – does he agree with the NDP that the federal government shouldn’t bail out of the assessment business? It’s not clear, actually. He does believe in national standards, however.

2:29:04 PM
Next up; Jean Charest, who has a far more extensive – almost *too* extensive – opening statement. I didn’t notice before he pointed them out, but some of the Big City Mayors are here as well.

2:32:22 PM
Jean Charest is still talking – he gives a shoutout to the EcoTrust model – gas taxes, right – and calls for money for infrastructure and training, just like he told everyone he was going to do.

2:35:46 PM
I love how suddenly, when it comes time for questions, the room just erupts into a bilingual cacophony. Look, a premier we recognize! Don’t let him get away!

He’s asked about equalization payment, and the importance of not slashing them – and Charest does little to debunk the notion that cuts similar in scope to those inflicted on health care and social programs during the 1990s may be on the table. “We’ve seen this movie before, remember.”

Oh, and he doesn’t think some faceless bureaucrat in Ottawa necessarily cares more about the environmental health of Canadians than a provincial regulator.

2:40:15 PM
Look, it’s Premier Ghiz! And watch the journalists flee the room – It’s like magic. He makes the case for the importance of the lobster sector, which is nearly every bit as important as the auto industry, and the fact that nobody blinked at that line is probably the saddest testimony to the amount of attention that he is receiving from the remaining press.

2:43:58 PM
Apparently, Ghiz may be the closing act as far as this availability. Huh. I thought we’d hear from Dalton McGuinty, but no.

2:48:01 PM
Okay, apparently, the open mic was too much of a temptation for Rock ’em Sock ’em Floyd Roland – the hockey hero of the Northwest Territories to resist. He, too, must share his thoughts on infrastructure spending – yay! – and Arctic sovereignty.

2:49:51 PM
And – that’s it, at least for this portion of the afternoon. I’m going to check the schedule for any last minute changes, but barring any unforeseen developments, this is probably the last you’ll hear from ITQ until later tonight.