Canada

Juggling priorities

The premier's wish list plays into Ottawa’s hands

John Geddes August 23 1999
Canada

Juggling priorities

The premier's wish list plays into Ottawa’s hands

John Geddes August 23 1999

Juggling priorities

Canada

The premier's wish list plays into Ottawa’s hands

Leave it to the historic elegance of Quebec City to lend even the premiers’ conference, that annual group gripe about Ottawa, the ebullience of a street party. As the premiers arrived for cocktails at City Hall one early evening last week—after eight hours of intense closed-door meetings—strolling tourists to form a cheerful crowd. Across

die narrow street, three open-air performers in clown costumes respectfully took a break. But before the last few premiers could straggle up, one performer grew tired of waiting and lit his torches.

The throng swivelled: camcorders that had just captured the arrival of the premiers, who had spent the day trying to keep a dizzying array of spending and tax proposals in the air, now fixed on a real fire juggler, Ti’Guy L’hallucinant.

The Hallucinator finished his show without being burned. The same cannot be said for the premiers. As the meetings ended, they were forced on the defensive for throwing about a shopping list of costly demands. Even some premiers admitted their discussions at times degenerated into hairsplitting. Should they demand Ottawa provide “substantial” or “sustainable” tax cuts? (“Sustainable” won out in the final communiqué.) “We went through six draffs,” moaned Albertas Ralph Klein later. “It got a little tiresome.” No doubt. Yet these sessions were far from trivial. The premiers were grappling with the big political question of the day: how should the swelling federal surplus, now projected by the Royal Bank of Canada to reach $25.9 billion by 2004-2005, be split?

The premiers’ answer: into many pieces. Instead of following the successful example of last year’s get-together in Saskatoon—where an unambiguous plea to make health care the country’s top priority pushed Ottawa to restore $2.5 billion in annual payments to medicare—this year they failed to find

a sharp focus. The premiers want Ottawa to cough up the rest of the transfer payments cut during the first-term deficit fight—roughly $3.7 billion a year—and they want unspecified millions more to aid Prairie farmers, pave highways and subsidize shipbuilders, On top of everything was the call for cuts to personal income tax and unem-

ployment insurance premiums. “To have 20 priorities is to have no priorities,” sniffed federal Finance Minister Paul Martin from Ottawa, The premiers’ long wish list left them exposed to such sniping. Also to the jibe that the compromises struck between tax and spending options sound eerily like what Prime Minister Jean Chrétien likes to call his “balanced approach” to

the revenue surplus. Yet the premiers were hardly signing on in advance to new federal spending. In fact, underlying much of the private discussion in Quebec City was a growing concern about what Ottawa’s renewed fiscal strength might mean for federalism’s balance of power. So when Ontario Pre-

mier Mike Harris pressed his peers— without great success—to demand big federal tax cuts, it represented more than a neoconservative desire to reclaim money for taxpayers: it was also a provincial kingpin’s instinct to limit Ottawa’s revenue flow.

Anxiety about an ascendant Ottawa was undisguised in the premiers’ spending prescriptions. Noting the Chrétien government’s growing interest in a socalled children’s agenda, for federal spending on preschool care and education, they quickly claimed the turf as their own. The premier chairing the meetings may have had the most inter-

est in curbing Ottawa’s clout. As host, Lucien Bouchard’s constructive role had Newfoundland’s Brian Tobin calling him Captain Canada. But for his own voters, the separatist premier’s explanation went beyond joking. “Whatever happens,” he said pointedly, “Quebec will always have to sit down with the provinces.” With another referendum as early as next year, Bouchard had reason to adopt a conciliatory tone. His tightrope walk from his persona as sovereigntist champion to that of constructive premier may have been the smoothest of the street performances on display in the old walled city.

John Geddes