OPINION

How to make the premiers jealous? Offer a deal.

PAUL WELLS August 14 2006
OPINION

How to make the premiers jealous? Offer a deal.

PAUL WELLS August 14 2006

How to make the premiers jealous? Offer a deal.

OPINION

PAUL WELLS

“Premiers expressed disappointment with the suspension of the World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations,” the Council of the Federation announced at the end of its annual meeting in St. John’s last week. “An ambitious result in the WTO Doha Development agenda would provide the best and most comprehensive outcome for Canada’s trade-oriented economy.”

Goodness. One hardly knows where to begin not caring.

These are provincial premiers—for “Council of the Federation” is the latest title for “yet another premiers’ meeting”—announcing what they think of a global trade negotiation. A negotiation among sovereign states— you know, countries. A negotiation at which the government of all of Canada is so weightless as not to matter: when the Doha round collapsed, it was at a Big 6 meeting attended only by behemoths like the U.S., India, China and Brazil. There is no hint in the news accounts that anyone left that meeting wondering what Danny Williams and Lome Calvert thought about it all.

But this is what your premiers do on their summer vacation. We are long past the early years of their peculiar delusion, when they grew weary of running their provinces and started pretending to run Canada. Now they like to pretend they run the whole world. It may be time for a new name change, to United Federation of Planets. “Premiers expressed disappointment with the latest Klingon violation of the Neutral Zone.” I hear Dalton McGuinty looks hot in pointy ears.

But it is hard to be too disdainful of the premiers—sorry, the council. There is nowhere for them to retreat but fantasy, the real world having proven so disappointing. The most interesting tidbit on the Council of the Federation website is the reminder that the Council was created on Dec. 5, 2003. That is, a

week before Paul Martin became prime minister. It was a perfect child of that now-forgotten dawn, when Martin was promising to “Make History” by ushering in a new era of federalism whose defining characteristic would be a carpet of tax dollars woven to cushion the step of every provincial premier. This policy led to widespread interprovincial jealousy. Martin cut special deals with any premier who asked. As a fraction of total federal spend-

It was fun watching them seek a ‘common front’ between the fox and the henhouse

ing, or of total provincial revenues, the amounts were trivial. But it’s like Valentine’s Day in school: soon every boy is convinced the others got more cards. The premiers complained about a “fiscal imbalance.” Stephen Harper campaigned on a promise to fix it. Perhaps he noticed that almost every province defines the imbalance in a different way. Quebec thinks it doesn’t get enough money from Ottawa. Ontario thinks it sends too much to Ottawa. It was fun, last week, watching them try to form a “common front” between the fox and the henhouse.

One of the smaller ironies left over from the Martin years is that by trying to indulge their every whim, he destroyed the premiers’ unity. When Jean Chrétien treated the provinces more or less equally, they couldn’t be angry at anyone but him. Martin treated them differently, so they are angry at one another. Harper promised to heed the Council of the Federation’s opinion on the future of equalization, knowing that just asking the question would induce a nervous breakdown.

Oh no. I fear I have fallen into the mocking tone that sometimes provokes a letter of rebuke from Benoit Pelletier, the Quebec intergovernmental-affairs minister, who plays the same role in the Council of the Fed-

eration that the former Cardinal Ratzinger once played in the Vatican: stern-eyed guardian of doctrine and lecturer of apostates. How could you take glee from the provinces’ hardship? How does Canada benefit when the provinces lose? Doo-dah, doo-dah. But in fact, the provinces, understood as places where Canadians live and consent to be governed, are fine. Eight of them are in budget surplus. All enjoy near-record low

interest rates and unemployment. It’s the “provinces”-understood as jumped-up satrapies whose potentates get to tell the governments of Brazil and China how to trade, as a break from telling the government of Canada how to budget—that had a bad couple of days in St. John’s.

Interestingly, the next Grand Chieftain of the Council of the Federation is New Brunswick’s Bernard Lord, who has been saying heretical things. Lord says the premiers should spend their time discussing the business of their provincial governments, instead of governments in Ottawa or on other planets. “That’s more in line with how does this council evolve, how do we become more productive as premiers,” he said, “other than just getting together every season to say the federal government needs to give us more money.”

Lord is making too much sense. It can’t last. One of my New Brunswick colleagues has tucked Lord’s comments away until next year, quite certain that by then he will give in, like all his predecessors, to the temptation to thump the table and level demands at Ottawa. Or Brazil. Whatever. M

ON THE WEB: For more Paul Wells, visit his blog at www.macleans.ca/inklesswells