National Column: A win for Trudeau, but now the hard work really starts

by Chantal Hébert

First the good news: On the most divisive federal-provincial issue on the horizon, Canada’s first ministers managed to have a face-to-face adult conversation and at least agree to keep looking together in the same direction.

Rather than exacerbate enduring differences over carbon pricing and pipelines, the Vancouver climate summit lowered the temperature of the overheated energy-environment debate.

That timely development challenges the notion that the only way to keep the peace in the federation is to ensure its political leaders operate in silos.

From those silos – as events of the past weeks have demonstrated – it is only too easy to launch verbal missiles at other regions via social media.

Critics of the exercise will rightly point out that a united front was maintained at the summit at the cost of delaying the inevitable point at which the rubber will have to hit the road on carbon pricing.

On that score, the so-called Vancouver Declaration amounts to less than what its lofty title suggests. It papers over fundamental disagreements with a liberal use of ambiguous language.

Back in the days when he could still be bothered to promise federal action on climate change in 2008, former prime minister Stephen Harper could have signed off on much of its content.

Time will tell whether the first ministers avoided a public failure this week by substituting meaningless movement for meaningful progress.

What is certain is that Justin Trudeau has just harvested the very last low-hanging fruits his predecessor wilfully neglected. There are no more easy pickings in sight.

In spite of their divisions, the provinces are united in their determination to ensure a more activist federal government does not dictate the terms of engagement on federal-provincial files.

Even among premiers such as those of Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia, who have been proactive on climate change and in the past lamented a lack of federal leadership, Trudeau found little support for a federally imposed floor price on carbon.

None would go to bat for the notion of prodding non-compliant provinces to join the parade with a national carbon tax.

If one had to pull just one telling sentence out of the eight-page declaration, it would be the one that commits the first ministers to put in place “carbon pricing mechanisms adapted to each province’s and territory’s specific circumstances.” That statement leaves much to interpretation and most of the heavy lifting to next fall’s round of negotiations.

That being said, Trudeau continues to benefit from a favourable alignment of the provincial stars. It offers his government a lot of political cover.

Canada’s two central provinces are on side with his climate change goals.

The presence at the table of an NDP government from Alberta has rendered the tone of the climate change conversation less confrontational. It acts as a damper on the federal NDP’s ability to criticize Trudeau’s handling of the file. How does one shred a communique to pieces when it is signed by the most powerful New Democrat in the land?

But from a strategic perspective, it is the support of B.C.’s Christy Clark that should matter most to Trudeau, and not just because her province has successfully pioneered a carbon tax at a time when it was considered too toxic a move by other governments, or because it – like Quebec – is struggling with controversial pipeline projects.

Second only to Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, Clark leads a rare Conservative-friendly provincial government. Indeed, it is in the Victoria backrooms that many of the former associates of the Harper government are currently living out their party’s exile in federal opposition.

Little sends a louder message that there is a conservative constituency for carbon pricing than the sight of Clark standing as she did this week shoulder-to-shoulder with Trudeau. Little also goes further to help diffuse attempts to drive an East-West wedge into the pipeline and climate change issues. On that particular front, the optics of a Quebec-Ontario-Ottawa Liberal trifecta are self-defeating.

In closing, a final observation: it is early days but so far, Trudeau’s approach to federal-provincial relations draws more from former Tory prime minister Joe Clark’s collegial vision of the federation as a community of communities than from the polarizing top-down federalism practiced by his father.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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