Premiers vs. PM on job training

John Geddes looks at Jason Kenney’s first test in new post

<p>Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne addresses the media as premiers gather for the Council of the Federation summer meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Thursday, July 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Lynett</p>

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne addresses the media as premiers gather for the Council of the Federation summer meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., Thursday, July 25, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Lynett

Aaron Lynett/CP

If the term “open federalism” rings only a faint bell, don’t be too hard on yourself. It was briefly a key catch phrase during Stephen Harper’s early months as Prime Minister back in 2006, but hasn’t exactly stuck as a defining value of his government.

Harper used “open federalism” to describe how his Conservatives planned to respect the provinces’ “experience and expertise” and stay out of their areas of jurisdiction. In opposition, after all, he had slammed the governing Liberals for “meddling” in provincial matters while neglecting core federal responsibilities.

But it’s hard to find any trace of that early reticent, respectful posture in his government’s stance this year on job training, which is easily the most contentious topic on the table at this week’s provincial and territorial premiers meeting at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., their annual Council of the Federation confab.

The host, Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s new Liberal premier, emerged from this morning’s sessions to announce that the premiers are united in objecting to the Harper government’s proposed Canada Job Grant, a bid put a federal stamp on job training, which is now managed pretty much as each province sees fit. “There really was a very strong feeling that the [federal plan] as it is just won’t work,” Wynne told reporters.

She said the premiers will ask for a meeting on the issue between their jobs ministers and Jason Kenney, Harper’s newly appointed employment and social development minister. Kenney quickly accepted, but he said the meeting will be a chance to “move forward with timely implementation of the Canada Job Grant.”  It would have been politically awkward, to say the least, for him to have appeared open to backing off at all on the jobs grant concept. After all, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveiled the plan, with considerable fanfare, as a centerpiece of last spring’s federal budget.

In brief, Flaherty proposed to take $300 million out of the roughly $500 million the federal government now transfers to the provinces to support training under so-called labour market agreements.  That $300 million would then be repurposed as Ottawa’s share of an all-new training system. To play along, provinces and participating employers would have to match the federal contribution. They would each cover a third of up to $15,000 a year for every employee enrolled for training.

But the provinces by and large say their current training programs work fine. Why should they gut them to set up a new made-in-Ottawa scheme? The stakes are high: Wynne says her province might lose $116 million of the $194 million the feds now pay into key training programs designed, she stresses, to meet Ontario’s particular needs.

Casting back to Harper’s manner of talking in his open-federalism days, imposing a jobs grant hatched in Ottawa doesn’t seem terribly respectful of provincial experience and expertise. Perhaps it’s justified, though. Maybe federal officials have carefully studied the landscape and concluded that that provinces are botching training so badly overall that they can’t be trusted to lead reforms.

Provincial officials I’ve talked with here don’t seem to fear that Kenney is sitting on a sweeping analysis that would expose their programs as failures. They admit some provincial training schemes don’t work well, but insist others are demonstrably successful. So why a wholesale, nationwide renovation to repair merely patchy problems? One possibility is that the federal government is less concerned with policy reform than with political branding.

The Conservatives have made “jobs, growth and long-term prosperity” their master slogan. That familiar upswept-arrows logo is all over public works projects and more. Unending advertising backs up the thrust.  But Ottawa doesn’t reap much credit, under the current system, for its contribution to provincially run training.

That’s why some provincial officials suspect, although they ask not to be quoted on this point, that gaining higher visibility might be the prime objective of the Canada Job Grant. (Canadian Press reports today that a federal document on the grant notes that participating provinces will be required to “publicly acknowledge the Government of Canada’s contribution.”)

But let’s assume that the federal push is motivated by a mix of genuine conviction that training could be improved and strategic interest in getting some political credit for hundreds of millions in yearly spending. To achieve those not-incompatible goals, it’s now Kenney who must coax the provinces on-side.

This will be a far trickier file to manage, I think, than some other high-profile fed-prov relations rough patches that the Harper government has simply rolled over. On federal transfer payments for health, for instance, Flaherty briskly dictated new terms in late 2011, cutting the rate of increase from six per cent a year to roughly the pace of economic growth. Provinces were shocked. But who could credibly complain? He wasn’t telling them how to run health care—just how much Ottawa could afford to pony up.

But on job training, the Harper government isn’t just allocating funds, it’s trying to shape programs. This isn’t a straightforward jurisdictional squabble. Both levels have legitimate policy concerns—and unavoidable political interests—when it comes to matching workers to available work. The problem is that, rather than acting as though it recognizes that complexity, the Conservatives lumbered ahead with the jobs grant without bothering with serious consultations.

In effect, Kenney must now do that consulting after the fact. He’ll want to retain at least the outline of the Canada Job Grant, and yet somehow assuage provincial politicians over what seem like eminently legitimate gripes. He made his reputation as a can-do immigration minister, drafting rafts of ambitious new policy about which provinces might have been interested, but where as federal minister he enjoyed clear primacy.

Now, we’ll see how Kenney fares finessing a file on which he must champion a policy not of his own making, and on which the provinces aren’t merely engaged, but view themselves, with good reason, as the front-line players. This sort of challenge arises often enough in Canadian federalism, and demands a certain open style of leadership. I seem to recall that someone used to have a term for it.