The Premiers vs. The Throne Speech

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On September 18, just days before the federal Throne Speech, and despite the health-related perils of travel, four provincial premiers went all the way to Ottawa to hold a press conference. There they demanded $28 billion more in funding from the federal government for health care, a provincial responsibility. They also insisted that it should be provided to them with no strings attached. As Ontario premier Doug Ford said “Give us the money, and we’ll deliver health care in the most effective, efficient way. We all have our different needs”  

This would be the same premier whose province is undergoing what he himself has described as a “tsunami” second wave of COVID-19 which almost everyone agrees has been badly handled. Critics point to the apparent lack of planning, confused messaging, intolerable delays in testing and tracing, and increasing reluctance of the premier to follow the directives of public health officials. This is also the premier who is currently in a vicious battle with the provinces’ nurses to override their contracts in the middle of a pandemic.

Ford was joined in Ottawa by two fellow Progressive Conservative premiers – Jason Kenney of Alberta and Brian Pallister of Manitoba — plus Francois Legault, the right-wing CAQ premier of Quebec.  Kenney, of course, is the deeply unpopular premier of Alberta, now a COVID hotspot, whose government is in a knockdown drag out battle with the provinces’ doctors, many of whom are leaving. Francois Legault, meanwhile, has seen his initial popularity in Quebec plummet as the province continues to be disproportionately affected by the virus. The premier was obliged to call in the Canadian military to salvage the disastrous situation in long term care homes and continues to rely on federal assistance to manage the crisis. In desperation both he and his health minister have now taken to blaming Quebecois culture for the province’s soaring case counts.

More than one commentator has noted that the whole press conference affair smacked of political opportunism, coming only days before Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberal government was set to reveal its comprehensive plans for dealing with the second wave. The situation must be particularly galling for the prime minister, who continues to stress the need for national unity and a ‘Team Canada’ approach in a time of crisis as he attempts to negotiate meaningful federal-provincial agreements through consultation and consensus. Yet his efforts to help the premiers help Canadians seem to have produced far less progress than hoped for, to say the least.

As the Throne Speech of September 23 took great pains to stress, in addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars the federal government has already committed for social safety net programs for individuals and the economy, it already handed over $500 million to the provinces specifically for health care measures early on in the pandemic. Then in mid-July Trudeau announced a whopping $19 billion would be funneled to provinces for a ‘safe restart’ of the economy in September, much of it for health care and related issues. The agreement, signed by all provinces, identified testing, contact tracing and acquisition of personal protective equipment as priorities, along with provisions for paid sick leave and expanded child care facilities. Ontario’s Doug Ford happily noted that his province alone would receive some $7 billion through this agreement.

Yet two months later, the four disgruntled premiers holding their press conference in Ottawa represented the provinces with some of the worst records in terms of managing the pandemic while restarting the economy. Clearly there was no “safe restart” in their jurisdictions.

Adding insult to injury, these same premiers were the ones complaining loudest about the Throne Speech and its ‘intrusion’ into provincial jurisdiction when it reiterated the government’s commitment to research, testing and obtaining a vaccine, as well as a longstanding commitment to a national pharmacare plan. Interestingly their outrage was not shared by many of the other premiers representing provinces in the Atlantic and British Columbia, where the pandemic has been far better managed.

Having failed in their attempt to divert attention elsewhere by attacking their traditional whipping boy, the federal government, one hopes the four dissidents will now turn their full attention to the very real problems facing each of their provinces.