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Premiers come to Halifax, do a lot of nothing

Council of Federation meeting ignores environmental issues, and participants say nothing about change in transfer payments

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Well, at least Nova Scotia’s tourism industry received a bit of a boost.

On Friday afternoon the annual meeting of the Council of the Federation wrapped up following three leisurely days of meetings and socializing that demonstrated, once again, that in Stephen Harper’s Canada you shouldn’t expect much in the way of progressive political leadership. The gathering at the Sheraton in Halifax (with a detour to Lunenburg) of the 13 provincial and territorial premiers was the 10th in the series of mostly desultory summer meetings since the less formal premiers’ confabs—a 1960s relic—morphed into the Council of the Federation in 2003. It may prove to be least eventful yet.

Formed with the goal of providing leadership on national issues through inter-provincial cooperation, the Council showed some momentum during its early years by pushing successfully for increased federal funding for health care, as well as campaigning for  national pharmacare, home care and green energy. A restrained plea for more health care dollars from the feds was still there this week, but there was nary a whisper about national drug or home care plans or ramped up efforts to respond to climate change with an energy plan built around cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike most of his recent predecessors, Harper refuses to meet with the provincial and territorial leaders as a group, but his presence was felt.

Let’s first consider energy and greenhouse gases. There was not much climate change in evidence in Halifax this week—sunny and cool one day, hot and muggy the next, then rain. Perhaps the premiers found this typical Nova Scotian July reassuring. Perhaps our business-as-usual weather was an antidote to news of  unprecedented droughts, heat waves and torrential rains occurring in central Canada, the US and UK, a help in putting climate change out of sight and out of mind. Instead of reaffirming the seven-point greenhouse gas reduction plan agreed to at their 2007 meeting, the premiers (egged on by a national media spun by the PMO) spent too much time dealing with the dispute between Alberta and British Columbia over the latter’s demand of a payoff for allowing shipment of tar sands oil across its territory and along its coast.

That dispute will not be settled by the Council of the Federation, nor are the Council’s views likely to have much impact on how it is resolved. Given the interplay with First Nations’ land claims, the courts may have the final word. But here’s the thing. Rather than staying completely out of the battle and sticking with their existing green-oriented policy, the Council lent legitimacy to the tar sands. Facilitating movement of bitumen across mainly pristine territory was not one of the original seven points agreed upon in 2007—promoting energy efficiency and conservation and developing renewable energy were front and centre. But, as the Council’s Friday press release announcing a review of the 2007 policy put it, “governments are now facing new and urgent priorities” and by that is meant shipping tar sands oil to Asia (or perhaps eastern Canada), not dealing with ever-worsening climate change.

The Harper government’s evolving petro-state is not a place where provincial leaders talk openly, as they did in 2004 and 2005, about comprehensive home care or the need for a national drug plan “to provide all Canadians with a basic level of coverage” to address “the catastrophic impact” on some Canadians (mainly in the Maritimes and Newfoundland) who find themselves in need of expensive drug therapies not covered by provincial programs. Those old ideas were left to the advocacy of various NGO representatives who made the trek to our shores on the assumption that something important was being decided. What they got from the premiers was a glossy 26-page document outlining some ways of saving money by bulk purchasing generic drugs and co-ordinating clinical practice guidelines and the training of health care providers. There was a lot of self-congratulation over those non-controversial (and overdue) proposals, but a more salient report to Canadians in general and assembled health lobbyists was shunted off to finance ministers for further discussion at a meeting in the fall.

The report was steered by Manitoba’s Greg Selinger, a former finance minister who knows the transfer payments file. Selinger and his team assessed two unilateral changes the Harper government has made to provincial transfers in the last three years—a cap on equalization imposed in 2009 and a new formula for health transfers, announced late last year. As a result of those blitzkrieg changes, over the five-year period from 2014 to 2019, the provinces will get $23 billion less than they would have received had the Harper government stuck with the commitments they made in 2007. You’d think the premiers could easily unite with the folks demonstrating in the streets outside the Sheraton against the threat to health care and call out Harper. But no, Selinger’s report goes to the finance ministers with language about working on “proposals to modernize fiscal arrangements.” This is ominous, considering that a fair bit of modernizing has already taken place since 2005, with increases in transfers to better-off Alberta and Ontario exceeding increases to the Atlantic provinces. Adoption of a straight per-capita formula for health transfers, announced in 2007, will mean a further jump in Alberta’s health funding from Ottawa of nearly 60 percent. Over the same 2013-15 period, the Atlantic provinces will all see increases of less than 9 percent in their health funding. In Stephen Harper’s Canada, the rich get richer while the premiers fiddle.

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