Trudeau confounds provinces with Conservative policies in Liberal clothing

Posted on October 20, 2016 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
October 19, 2016.   KELLY MCPARLAND

I’m beginning to think Justin Trudeau’s government would be nowhere without Stephen Harper’s help.

The Liberals have already adopted so many of the former Conservative government’s positions, a suspicious mind might suspect last year’s election was all part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to hold onto Tory policies, but repackage them under a much friendlier face.

The Liberals, like the Tories, have concluded that greater transparency is not such a great thing: at the moment they’re being criticized for holding just three technical briefings on Canada’s fight against ISIL since the election last year. The Tories held 12 in their last year in power. The Liberals have likewise decided that a 3% annual increase in healthcare transfers to the provinces is plenty, just as the Tories decreed; that the Conservative target on emission reductions was perfectly fine; that the UN’s declaration on the rights of aboriginals is “unworkable” in Canada; that welcoming refugees involves more than just turning up at the airport for a photo op; that developing Canada’s resources is necessary, even if it offends activists and some native communities; that regional claims on Supreme Court seats need to be honoured; and that repairing the centuries-old relations with aboriginal communities is a lot harder than a few well-meaning speeches.

OK, so… live and learn. The latest evidence that the Liberals have devoted extensive study to the Conservative playbook has been on display this week as Trudeau discovered he had a completely full agenda and couldn’t possibly confer with health ministers from the 10 provinces and three territories in Toronto so they could press their demand for more money.

The ministers were ostensibly gathering to discuss important issues related to healthcare. But really what they wanted was to complain as loud and long as possible about the Liberals’ refusal to extend a 13-year-old agreement under which they get 6% annual funding increases. Jane Philpott, the federal minister, offered them the same 3% increase the Conservatives had promised. She also noted that health spending has been rising at a rate of 0%-2% a year, while the provinces have been getting 6%, which is a pretty good deal. No one wants to say out loud where the extra money has been going, but we all know the answer: the provinces use it to finance whatever programs strike their fancy.

Philpott upset the ministers on Tuesday when she posted a Facebook comment and tweet that alluded to this awkward reality. “Canadians expect that any new investment for health care ought to go to health care,” she suggested.

As a statement it might seem reasonable enough, but Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, as host of the gathering, was quick to express his vexation. “Frankly, I think that that’s the one element of what’s come out in the last 24 hours that most disappoints me,” he confided. It suggested, he said, that Ottawa thinks the provinces and territories “aren’t acting with the same good faith and fairness and insuring that every health care dollar is invested that way.”

Well, for shame. B.C.’s Health Minister Terry Lake joined in to renew the demand for direct intervention by Trudeau, as if Philpott wasn’t good enough for so important a matter.

“The Canada health transfer last year to B.C. was about $4.2 billion, and [the province’s health] budget is over $18 billion, so you know that every single penny that comes from the federal government is going into health care services. So I don’t buy that argument at all,” he said.

Lake might want to be careful where he goes with that argument. Philpott is Trudeau’s chosen minister for the health file, and has carried a message Trudeau himself has expressed. Trudeau’s ongoing inability to find an opening in his calendar to spend being badgered by the provinces suggests he’s on to their game and no more willing to play it than Harper ever was. He has already informed them he will impose a carbon tax on them if they don’t impose one on themselves, showing the same unwillingness to bend to prolonged bleating that was a hallmark of the Tory regime.

The Liberals have already adopted so many of the former Conservative government’s positions, a suspicious mind might suspect last year’s election was all part of a vast right-wing conspiracy
What must really upset the provinces is the knowledge that Trudeau is better placed than Harper to win a battle of wills. The premiers found it easy to demonize the former prime minister, accuse him of dictatorial tendencies and a callous indifference to the pressures they face. Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne once managed to make an ongoing issue of the fact Harper hadn’t personally returned her phone calls with the alacrity she expected.

With the Liberals still high in the public standing, it’s much harder to make that case against Trudeau. It hasn’t really registered with Canadians yet that Liberal policies look a lot like Tory policies. Maybe that’s because Tory policies were never that bad to begin with. It was largely in the optics, and Trudeau has shown himself to be nothing if not a master of optics.

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