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Premiers meet on Doug Ford’s turf to push Ottawa to send more money to the provinces

Provincial and territorial leaders will gather in Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s backyard today as they look to craft a policy agenda they hope will be palatable to the minority Liberal government in Ottawa.

While many of the premiers have met one on one with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since the Oct. 21 vote, the Toronto-area meeting is the first time all the premiers will meet as a group since voters returned Trudeau to Ottawa with a second mandate.

The premiers have telegraphed that they will be looking for more money from Ottawa to shore up provincial budgets, some of which have been hit by sinking oil prices and soaring health-care costs.

The Council of the Federation, which is now comprised largely of conservative-minded premiers, are meeting at Ford’s suggestion in an airport hotel not far from his Etobicoke North riding.

Ford, a Progressive Conservative, has tried to present Ontario as unifier at a time when national unity seems to be stretched thin because of fractious relations between Ottawa and the resource-rich provinces in the West. It’s a role the province has played in the past during the constitutional squabbles of the 1980s and 1990s.

‘We’ll get over these bumps’: Ford

“With a group of premiers — all 13 are showing up — we’re going to have disagreements but I think that’s healthy, to be very frank,” Ford said. “We have to listen to the people out West and listen to their concerns. A lot of people are struggling out West. I mentioned that to the prime minister as well and he agrees. He wants to support everyone right across this country and I’m going to support the prime minister by making sure we get as much support as possible.

“We want to send the message around the world that we’re a united Canada. We’re stronger together and we’ll get over these bumps,” Ford said, referencing disagreements between Western Canada and Ottawa.

After the Liberal government introduced a series of measures perceived as an affront to the country’s natural resources sector, voters this October turfed all Liberal MPs between Manitoba and B.C.

Since the election, Trudeau has restructured his cabinet, redeploying his top lieutenant, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, from the foreign affairs file to intergovernmental affairs as he looks to tamp down growing unease in Western Canada. Freeland, a native of Peace River, Alta., has assumed the national unity file.

Like many of these premiers meetings in years’ past, the provincial leaders will be asking Ottawa to loosen its purse strings and send more money to subnational governments that are grappling with acute fiscal challenges.

Speaking to reporters Sunday ahead of Monday’s meeting, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he hopes the 13 provincial and territorial leaders can reach a consensus on joint priorities that they can ask the federal Liberals to act on now — namely a tweak to the fiscal framework and directing more money to the provinces for health care.

The premiers will craft a list of priorities that they can present to Trudeau when they all gather for a first ministers’ meeting, which is expected in January.

“My No. 1 priority is to come to a consensus on a number of issues on behalf of all Canadians as well as on behalf of providing that guidance from coast to coast to coast to what we have now — a minority federal administration,” Moe said.

Moe, the current chair of the Council of the Federation, has had a poor relationship with the federal Liberals. He left a recent meeting with Trudeau frustrated, saying he only heard “more of the same” from Trudeau. Moe has urged a radical rethink to Bill C-69, the controversial Environmental Assessment Act that opponents say will make it difficult to build new natural resources projects. Ottawa has so far rebuffed calls for repeal or major amendments to the legislation.

Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney have also urged Ottawa to revisit the current equalization formula, something they have said is unfair.

While a major rework of the formula seems unlikely, the two western premiers have said they will push for changes to the fiscal stabilization program and they hope to bring the other premiers onside.

Western premiers want change to fiscal stabilization

Kenney, who just introduced an austerity budget as he looks to get the province back on a more sound fiscal footing amid a prolonged oil price slump, has said Ottawa should retroactively change the formula to ensure his province can tap more money.

The program, which is administered by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, provides financial assistance to any province faced with a year-over-year decline in its non-resource revenues greater than five per cent.

The problem for Kenney is that his province has already been floated the maximum amount the program allows for each year — $60 per person or, in the case of Alberta, $250 million a year — something he says is inadequate given the size of the budget hole the province is facing.

In 2015–16, for example, the province’s revenues contracted by a staggering $8.8 billion and yet this insurance-like program paid out just $248 million.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, a Liberal, has said changing equalization is the “wrong target” but he’d be open to tweaks to the stabilization program.

“We need to be able to have a fund that’s not tied to equalization, but that can respond within the next year. If Alberta is doing well, Newfoundland and Labrador will do well, Saskatchewan will do well, and so, therefore, all of Canada will benefit,” he said.

Academics, including the University of Calgary’s Bev Dahlby, have suggested that Alberta should focus its energies on securing a new deal from Ottawa on this program rather than spend political capital to change the equalization formula — a non-starter for provinces like Quebec and those in Atlantic Canada, which rely on the program as it is currently constituted.

“A fair formula for a fiscal stabilization program should meet the same criteria as any good insurance policy. It should cover only significant losses…. It should include a deductible to ensure that the insured party, the province in this case, still has an incentive to manage their fiscal affairs responsibly. And it should offer simple and transparent terms along with a streamlined claims process,” Dahlby wrote in a June 2019 paper on the topic.

“Improving the formula will not save Alberta and other resource-rich provinces from all the pain of the occasional resource bust, but it will help alleviate some of it,” he said.

Ford pushing for more health-care dollars

As CBC News first reported, Ford is also game to make health-care funding a top agenda item at the one-day meeting.

The premiers have been pushing Ottawa to lift the current health-care spending growth cap — which is currently set at three per cent each year — to help provinces tackle their single biggest budget line item.

Ford said Sunday the Canada Health Transfer, the money the federal government sends to the provinces and territories to help pay for health care, should grow instead by 5.3 per cent a year to better address mounting costs in the sector as the country’s population ages.

The Liberal campaign platform pledged $6 billion over four years in new health spending, which included funding to boost the number of doctors, a move toward a pharmacare program and an improvement to mental-health services.

Ford, Moe and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs also signed a memorandum Sunday that will commit the three provinces to studying nuclear reactor technology — namely deployment of small modular reactors. The leaders said it would help their provinces lower greenhouse gas emissions as Canada shifts from coal-fired power plants to less carbon-intensive sources of energy.

CBC

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