Justin Trudeau must have learned to enjoy all those talks he has been having been with the provinces throughout the pandemic.
Many of his government’s big plans for the post-COVID-19 future, as laid out in the colossal 2021 budget unveiled on Monday, will force Ottawa to do a lot more talking with the provinces — on everything from child care to pharmacare to long-term care.
The biggest boost to industry in this federal budget, in fact, may be to the federal-provincial negotiations industry.
Trudeau isn’t redesigning the Canadian federation, as his critics warned he might. But he is planning to put its relationships to a test in the built-back-better country sketched out over 700-plus pages of “A Recovery Plan for Jobs, Growth and Resilience.”
It is the most heavily health-themed budget in recent memory. No surprise, with Canada still in the grips of the COVID-19 crisis that is already straining the resources of the health-care system.
But it isn’t the budget that the provinces demanded to bolster the health-care system.
For months now, premiers have been increasingly insistent that Trudeau and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland use this budget to inject some serious, permanent dollars into provincial health coffers, to the tune of an extra $28 billion a year.
Just recently, Quebec Premier François Legault was talking about why opposition parties might want to topple Trudeau’s government and force an election this spring if the budget failed to deliver on the health-care demand.
That was before the pandemic’s third wave hit. Canada is not going to be plunged into a health-care election — or any kind of election — while COVID-19 is wreaking its renewed havoc across the nation. All the provinces received in this budget was the same answer they’ve been receiving from Ottawa ever since last fall: We’ll talk about boosts to health-care financing later, when we’re not busy fighting the pandemic.
As we can now see, that very important conversation will join a long list of other topics now looming on the federal-provincial negotiation table, thanks to Monday’s budget.
So you like the idea of a national child-care program, the big headline item in this much-awaited budget from the federal Liberals? Some patience will be required. “Over the next five years, the government will work with the provinces and territories to make meaningful progress toward a system that works for families.”
If you’ve been pining for a national pharmacare program, promised in the 2019 election campaign, you’ll have to stay tuned too. “The government is committed to work with the provinces, territories and stakeholders to build on the foundational elements that are already in progress.”
What about the dire situation in long-term care, where the pandemic blazed its trail of destruction in 2020 and everyone vowed Canada must do better? Once again, “The work around national standards unfolds,” the budget says, somewhat inconclusively.
Liberals promised that they would be giving Canada a highly progressive budget this spring, true to their own political convictions and the practical reality that the New Democrats are the party they most need to keep on side to get this budget passed. It is that.
But the “progress” in this progressive politics is all conditional on the complex web of relationships between the federal government, provinces and territories. Basically, anything that involves care — health, child, long-term, pharma — forces governments in this country to try to get along, whether they want to or not.
Every prime minister has to wrangle with the provinces. The current prime minister is the son of the man who gave Canada its constitution nearly 40 years ago, with all the haggling that required, including the separation of powers keeping this Trudeau’s big plans in check.
It’s been a long time since any prime minister had to negotiate as much with the provinces as this one has, chiefly because of a COVID-19 crisis that required all governments to co-ordinate the emergency response, on a daily basis.
It’s more than the pandemic, though. From climate change to child care, Trudeau’s big ideas have tossed him into a federal-provincial power struggle almost since the moment he took power. The prime minister who wants to make a difference in Canadians’ lives first has to work out his differences with provincial governments. This new budget carries on that pattern — from big Liberal dreams come big federal-provincial negotiations.
For more than a year now, the Trudeau government’s constant refrain has been, “We’re all in this together.” When it comes to the boldest plans for post-pandemic recovery, that “we” includes the provinces and territories too — and hopes that all that togetherness of the past year will carry on post-COVID-19.
Susan Delacourt is an Ottawa-based columnist covering national politics for the Star. Reach her via email: email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @susandelacourt