Friday, August 21, 2015

The Wynne-Harper Feud

A version of this item has been crossposted at iPolitics.

One warm spring evening in 1957 the Premier of Ontario, Leslie Frost, mounted the stage of Toronto's Massey Hall at a Progressive Conservative rally marking the official launch of the federal party's campaign - one that would end 22 years of national Liberal rule.

Premier Frost's role was to introduce the main speaker of the evening, federal Tory Leader John Diefenbaker. He did that and something else besides: his introduction to launch a blistering attack on a recent federal tax-sharing deal offered to the provinces, declaring the issue wasn't "...the Federal Government giving Ontario or the provinces anything. That is the patronizing attitude of Ottawa. All we ask is a reasonable part of our own, a part which is commensurate with the size of the job we have to do...."

Ontario Premier Leslie Frost
 and John Diefenbaker
Frost wanted more resources from the federal government to fund investment in infrastructure, education and economic development among other things. Diefenbaker agreed that Dominion-provincial fiscal relationships "were in a mess." However, he also pledged tax cuts as "one of the major items of business at the next session of Parliament."

La plus ├ža change.

A dozen years earlier Prime Minister Mackenzie King jousted with Ontario Premier George Drew over the timing of federal and provincial elections as World War II came to an end. Drew, having lost a vote of confidence, scheduled an election for June 11, 1945.  King's five year mandate was up and he planned a federal vote for June 25. Fearing the impact of an Ontario Conservative victory on the federal campaign, King (on the legendary C.D. Howe's advice) called the federal election to coincide with the Ontario election. It was not to be. While King attended FDR's funeral in Hyde Park, Drew outmaneuvered King by moving the date up to June 4. It was too late for King to react. Both would win their electoral contests, but clearly established that federal-provincial feuding would be the new normal - even during elections.

In 2015 the premier is Kathleen Wynne and the prime minister is Stephen Harper. He is refusing to offer federal administrative support to Wynne's proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. She, in response, is doing whatever she can to support Justin Trudeau.

It is hard to overstate just how deeply irresponsible Harper's position is. Federal-provincial cooperation is an essential part of how the federation functions. For example, all provinces except Quebec have their own personal and corporate income taxes collected by Revenue Canada.

Federal-provincial cooperation failed during the SARS crisis of 2003. A subsequent report stated that without fixing this problem Canada would "be at greater risk from infectious disease and will look like fools in the international community."

Various Harper ministers have issued press releases and tweets touting the virtues of federal-provincial cooperation. Free trade agreements require provincial cooperation to be implemented and respected. To take one (rare) example of provincial non-cooperation - when Newfoundland under Premier Danny Williams broke the usual protocols by expropriating the assets of AbitibiBowater, the cost of the action brought by the company under NAFTA had to be paid by the federal government. What Williams did was far from the norm. The same is true of Mr. Harper's refusal of cooperation with Premier Wynne. If a province wants this administrative assistance for a new pension program, Harper is obliged to extend the normal courtesy essential to the efficient management of Canadian federalism - whether he likes it or not.

Harper's position appears to be little more than ideological zeal. His opposition to public pensions has extended in the past even to the Canada Pension Plan.  Toronto Star Columnist Thomas Walkom has noted that "at various times in his career, Harper has dismissed the Canada Pension Plan as a boondoggle and tax grab that should be taken apart and privatized."

Premier Wynne herself has involved herself more deeply in the federal campaign appearing at a rally on August 17 with Justin Trudeau in downtown Toronto where she not only criticized Stephen Harper but also attacked NDP leader Thomas Mulcair's ideas as "incomplete or ... unworkable or ... impossible". If Harper's response to the Ontario pension proposal was intemperate so was Wynne's partisan broadside against Mulcair. She may need a relationship with a Prime Minister Mulcair after October 19. The rules of federal-provincial diplomacy suggest she should have adopted a more measured tone, especially given that both Mulcair and Wynne agree on the need for CPP expansion.

Harper's ongoing refusal to meet with the Premiers outside of one-on-one chats and vapid photo ops - his indifference to working with provinces - has not been good for Canadian federalism. It is time to change the tone.