November 23, 2012 – In his latest column, MLI’s Brian Lee Crowley writes about the latest headline making the news: “Harper snub threatens to overshadow premiers meeting.” According to Crowley, “The premiers are trying to save face by turning the PM’s absence into a “snub” that will prevent them from having a productive meeting about the economy. How embarrassing.” He adds, “This amounts to claiming that they will not do everything within their power to promote prosperity within their respective provinces unless the prime minister comes and briefs them about his economic plans, plans on which the premiers and their officials are extensively briefed and about which they can read any day of the week in the newspaper.” Read his latest column below published in the Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon’s StarPhoenix, Regina’s Leader-Post, Windsor Star, The Province, and Canada.com.
By Brian Lee Crowley, Calgary Herald, November 23, 2012
As every poker player knows, you can parlay a weak hand into victory with a good bluff. The cards you are dealt are only a fraction of the game; it is what you can make your opponents believe that matters most.
If you are ever looking to make a few easy bucks, then, I highly recommend inviting the premiers to a friendly evening of poker. Their bluffing skills are pitiful and their hand weak. You are liable to rake in the chips.
Their poker acumen has been painfully on display this week in the lead up to their meeting on the economy taking place in Halifax. Because premiers’ meetings are usually greeted with a national collective yawn, they have tried to turn their non-event into a story by making it all about the prime minister’s absence. The premiers’ line was perfectly captured by the headline on The Canadian Press story: Harper snub threatens to overshadow premiers meeting.
The only snub, of course, is the one that the premiers have invented and then retailed to journalists, the more credulous of whom have duly parroted it.
The reality is quite different. The premiers yearn for the glory days of first ministers’ meetings of the sixties, seventies and eighties, when three trends made those meetings a gold mine for the provinces.
This was the era in which the welfare state was being built up and essentially completed in Canada. Hand in hand with that development came the loss of control over spending at both the federal and provincial levels. With much of the jurisdiction over social programs, like welfare and health care, provinces needed to be at the table and Ottawa was constantly putting huge sums of money on the table to get them there, budget discipline be damned.
Bolstering this trend was the rise of a separatist Quebec nationalism. Both separatists and dubiously federalist leaders in the province were eager to turn every tiff between Canada and Quebec into federalism’s death rattle. Ottawa needed not only to engage the provinces, but to be seen to be engaging them, and such first ministers’ get-togethers came to be the established venue for this. Pierre Trudeau’s political career was made by his putting then Quebec Premier Daniel Johnston in his place at one such nationally televised event.
Finally, throughout much of these golden days of first ministers’ meetings, there were powerful premiers at the table who were acknowledged leaders of national stature: Peter Lougheed, Bill Davis, Duff Roblin, Robert Stanfield, Allan Blakeney and others. Quick: name me two premiers today who are also leaders of national stature and are not Brad Wall. Thought so.
The premiers collectively came to believe the illusion that they were national figures and that first ministers’ meetings were somehow the natural venue where the policy of the nation should be hammered out, with Parliament and the legislatures quaint antiques to whom such agreements were presented as so many faits accomplis.
None of the factors that made first ministers’ meetings so important then, however, apply today. Once Ottawa needed the provinces, but today, as the pitiful posturing of the premiers shows, they need Ottawa, but the need is not reciprocal.
The very last thing a modern prime minister needs is a first ministers’ meeting. Think of all the reasons that premiers love them. They create the illusion, for example, that the premier of P.E.I. or Manitoba is an equal of the prime minister of Canada. They create a huge incentive for the provinces to paper over their profound policy differences because the one proposition every premier effortlessly assents to is that Ottawa does not send enough money their way. Unless Ottawa agrees to provincial demands, these meetings invariably make the prime minister the bad guy, the only holdout at a table of 11. It’s no lose for the provinces, who either get new booty or blame Ottawa for the “failure” of the meeting. Most first ministers’ meetings can accurately be described as whining while dining.
The premiers are trying to save face by turning the PM’s absence into a “snub” that will prevent them from having a productive meeting about the economy. How embarrassing. This amounts to claiming that they will not do everything within their power to promote prosperity within their respective provinces unless the prime minister comes and briefs them about his economic plans, plans on which the premiers and their officials are extensively briefed and about which they can read any day of the week in the newspaper.
Their real complaint is that the PM isn’t willing to show up and be the butt of their manufactured outrage and whipsawed into new transfers while he’s struggling to balance the budget.
I’d fold those cards, premiers. We can see in your eyes you’ve got nothing in that hand.
Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa. @MLInstitute