What to expect as the premiers gather in wine country

John Geddes on high stakes and heightened tensions around the Council of the Federation

(Frank Gunn/CP)

Advocates for more women in high office often predict politics would change for the better if the game wasn’t defined so thoroughly by the confrontational, combative style too often cultivated by men. The remarkable gender-balance shift of recent years in Canadian provincial politics might put that theory to the test: five of the 10 provincial premiers (and one of the three territorial premiers) meeting over the next three days in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., are women.

Last summer’s meeting in Halifax of the Council of the Federation, as the premiers’ club has been called since 2003, was overshadowed, you might recall, by friction between Alberta’s Alison Redford and B.C.’s Christy Clark over pipeline politics. Clark was demanding a bigger say—and a slice of the profits—from any pipeline across her province linking Alberta’s oil sands to a new Pacific port.

This week in Ontario’s wine country, Newfoundland and Labrador’s Kathy Dunderdale could be sparring with Quebec’s Pauline Marois over the proposed  $7.7-billion Muskrat Fall’s hydro development. Newfoundland plans to manage Muskrat Falls in tandem with the old Upper Churchill dam. But Hydro-Quebec has filed a lawsuit seeking to secure its highly advantageous, flexible deal to tap Upper Churchill power, which dates back to 1969—and has long angered Newfoundlanders. Dunderdale dismisses the Quebec utility’s move as “desperate” and “arrogant.”

When it comes to high-stakes energy developments, at least, it seems female premiers are apt to sound as antagonistic as their male counterparts ever were. But if you’re looking for conflict this week, clashes among and between premiers, of any sex, aren’t likely to be the main event. The time-honoured tradition of provincial tension with Ottawa over money, and who gets to decide how to spend it, is much more likely to dominate.

After they assemble for a social event this evening, the premiers get down to work on Thursday, with the official agenda packed with skills training, infrastructure, energy strategy and federal transfer payments. Every one of these topics offers rich potential for premiers to complain about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach. On Friday, though, the premiers are slated to turn to issues much less likely to expose fed-prov strains, such as bullying, including online bullying, and health-care innovation.

Job training is shaping up as the most contentious matter on the table. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s new Liberal premier and the council’s host at the wine-country tourist town, is far from alone in voicing discontent over the federal government’s proposed overhaul of on-the-job training. Finance Minsiter Jim Flaherty announced the new Canada Jobs Grant in last spring’s federal budget, without first securing provincial agreement.

The new job grant would pay companies that set up training programs $10,000 for every worker enrolled, with the government contribution split equally between Ottawa and the province. But to qualify, the company would have to put up $5,000 of its own money for every trainee. Critics say only big employers would be able to afford to participate. As well, many premiers, including Wynne, argue they understand the real training needs of their local economies better than Ottawa does.

To pay for the new grant scheme, the Harper government proposes to take away $300 million a year that it now gives to provinces and territories under longstanding labour market agreements. Wynne’s case has been bolstered by withering criticism of the proposed Canada Jobs Grant from the Caledon Institute of Social Policy and the Mowat Centre. The two think-tanks argued in a joint report that the grant aims to supplant proven provincial training programs with Ottawa’s entirely untested scheme.

There’s not much time to hammer out a compromise: the new federal plan is supposed to be up and running by next spring. Jason Kenney, one of Harper’s most effective lieutenants during his high-profile run as immigration minister, was handed the Employment and Social Policy portfolio in the recent cabinet shuffle. Putting Kenney in charge of pushing through this signature measure from last spring’s budget leaves little doubt it’s a top priority for the Prime Minister.

In the Atlantic region, the training fight is linked closely to drawn-out opposition to the Employment Insurance reforms that were announced in the 2012 budget. One of the most contentious changes to EI eligibility rules would require seasonal workers to travel up to an hour for jobs that are available when, say, fishing or forestry industries are dormant.

Another key element of Flaherty’s most recent budget was its infrastructure plan. That $50-billion-plus strategy is now the purview of Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel, who was handed this key job by Harper in that cabinet shuffle earlier this month. Unlike the jobs grant concept, which looked bound to face provincial opposition from the outset, the infrastructure plan was thought to be an easier sell. So any significant grumbling about it in Niagara-on-the-Lake would be a highly unwelcome development for Lebel, as he seeks to negotiate separate  infrastructure deals with provinces by next spring.

Beyond the official agenda, an intriguing possibility for Niagara-on-the-Lake is discussion—perhaps more in the corridors and over meals—of Senate reform. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s recent calls for abolishing the Senate is more than an expression of the growing frustration among many Canadians over some senators’ dubious expense claims. Wall makes the case that the provincial governments are the proper champions of regional and provincial interests in the federation—a role in national politics that advocates of Senate reform have long claimed for an elected upper chamber.

Any sign this week that more premiers are sympathetic to Wall’s abolition stance could be interpreted then, not just as anti-Senate, but as pro-province. The time is ripe for some assertion of provincial clout. After all, Harper ended the tradition of prime ministers meeting regularly with the premiers, eliminating a key forum for provinces to project their power. And his government has shown a willingness to change big-ticket programs— like job training and, before that, health transfers—that directly affect provinces without bothering to consult them much.

A reaction was bound to materialize. This week’s premiers’ summit might just provide some telling signals of how assertive that inevitable response is going to be.

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