by Tim Harper
When Canada’s premiers sit around the table with the prime minister, the elephants will always find a way to squeeze into the room.
Maybe because it has been so long, we’d simply forgotten.
At the first real meeting between Justin Trudeau and the premiers Thursday – we’ll shunt last December’s rah-rah session to the category of a “get to know you again after seven years” cocktail party – the room got awfully crowded.
This was a climate change meeting that had to deal with all manner of extraneous factors, not all of them having to do with climate change, and a reminder that, after a decade during which such meetings took on the glow of nostalgia, they can quickly get derailed by conflicting agendas.
Trudeau trumpeted an agreement on the need for carbon pricing mechanisms, working groups that will report back in six months, but premiers retained their cherished “flexibility.” Given tensions going into the meeting, this might have been as good as it was going to get.
There was the Quebec decision to use a court injunction to force TransCanada to submit to provincial hearings to show its Energy East pipeline meets the province’s environmental standards.
Never mind Quebec is following a hearing process that has already played out in pipeline debates in British Columbia and Ontario, and never mind that a slow-footed TransCanada could have made this easier on Quebec City. This is misplaced oilpatch anger over oil prices that now look eternally depressed, lost jobs, ballooning provincial deficits, sliding house values in Alberta and a view that Quebec and the Trudeau government is kicking them when they’re down.
Another elephant – the expected federal bailout or investment, depending on your point of view, of Bombardier, and the Quebec argument that what was good for the auto industry in Ontario must be good for the aerospace industry in Quebec.
Never mind there are a host of good reasons for Ottawa to invest in that industry. This is again timing and misplaced anger from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Throw in the eternal election elephant. Votes loom in Saskatchewan and Manitoba and Brad Wall’s opposition to a carbon tax, while consistent, is certainly exacerbated by his need to get re-elected.
He has inferred that his opposition is based more on timing than bedrock ideology, but it’s unclear when that assertion could be tested. There is no time on the horizon where the price of oil and the resource-based rebound would end Wall’s opposition.
Then there’s the slumping economy, an elephant most difficult to wrestle down. If you consider carbon pricing a tax and if you are hurting economically in 2016, it takes a special, highly elusive type of altruism to agree to take on a larger burden for the greater good years down the road.
Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador flatly claim to have no fiscal room to slap a new tax on
Finally, there is the other eternal provincial elephant – the resistance to top-down demands from Ottawa and, if Trudeau has to ultimately impose a carbon pricing floor on the provinces, premiers were not about to roll over for a consensus-minded prime minister who, at least publicly, does not believe the environment is a partisan issue.
No one at the table Thursday was about to argue that economic growth must be twinned with responsible environmental stewardship.
The environment may not be a partisan issue but implementing environmental policy is a political art and always will be.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has to deal with the very real opposition to Energy East in his province. He argues his position is all about process and ensuring there is a provincial position to take to the National Energy Board.
On this, he won support of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and (tentatively) Alberta’s Rachel Notley and it is worth noting here that the climb to the high road and the voice of conciliation was the domain of two of three women who are provincial premiers.
But Couillard again brought his demand that Ottawa ante up $1 billion (U.S.) for Bombardier saying he will repeat it “again and again.” He won Wynne’s support on that, as well, as she pointed out Bombardier is a key national company that is also crucial to the Ontario economy, but the federal Liberal foot-dragging on this question has allowed regional tensions to boil.
We’re a long way from the bonhomie and calls that “Canada is back” at the global environmental summit in Paris in December.
This wouldn’t be the first relationship that blossomed during a Paris honeymoon only to wilt in the matrimonial kitchen over a dispute about who was going to feed the kids.
Ah, but Trudeau and the premiers will always have Paris.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services