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DAN LEGER: Will federal cash fix national discord? Premiers think so

Bruce MacKinnon's editorial cartoon for Dec. 4, 2019. Premiers meeting, Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Atlantic premiers, Health care, healthcare, oil, petroleum.
Bruce MacKinnon's editorial cartoon for Dec. 4, 2019. - Bruce MacKinnon

Lately, I’ve found myself asking whether 2019 will some day be seen as the year disunity returned in force to Canada. Harmony is distinctly at a premium. 

Alberta’s government says national unity is threatened by the province’s economic swoon, which Canada didn’t do enough to prevent. Saskatchewan’s government says that province, too, is being crippled by federal policies. 

Then there’s the Quebec government’s odious imposition of one set of cultural norms on all citizens, in defiance of the individual liberties promised in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You can’t have a united country when one province suspends constitutional rights that other provinces feel bound to respect. 

How can we have national unity when British Columbia and Quebec block pipelines believed essential to the wealth of oil-producing companies and provinces? Politicians opposed to the federal Liberal government lead all the provinces involved in the pipeline conflicts. Meanwhile Bloc Québécois agitators are surging again in Parliament. 

Can Canada be united when gross economic inequality separates the classes? When the Indigenous people are treated so shabbily? Across the country, liberals and conservatives refuse to see anything decent about each other. America’s greatest export, toxic politics, has spread north. 

This is all discouraging for anyone who thinks a country works better when there’s agreement on big questions. But I perceive a ray of hope, albeit from an unlikely source. Our premiers, bless their fractious, parochial little heads, have discovered that federal cash is the glue that can bind us together. 

Canadians might disagree on everything from climate change to daylight savings, but if there’s one thing that unifies our squabbling leaders, it’s envy of Ottawa’s money. Think of the miracles they could work with that massive stash! 

You might have noticed this newfound co-operative spirit when the premiers met in Toronto. They subdued their divisive habits and solemnly called, unanimously, for Ottawa to fix everything. 

Take health-care delivery, the top issue for millions of Canadians and a matter entirely under provincial jurisdiction. Ottawa helps pay for it through a formula established by the previous Conservative government. 

Annual increases are capped at three per cent. But the federal share of health spending has been shrinking over time, partly because Ottawa has no say over how the money gets spent. Provinces make all the decisions. 

Now the premiers want Ottawa to spend at least $1 billion more each year in this area of their exclusive jurisdiction. 

Meanwhile, the premiers tiptoed around the corrosive ongoing dispute over federal equalization. They apparently never uttered the word, which is odd, because some of them make the program sound like straight-out confiscatory socialism. 

Jason Kenney in Alberta and Scott Moe in Saskatchewan claim equalization is hobbling their economies and impoverishing their citizens, thereby provoking disunity. If equalization can be fixed, one supposes, all will be well. 

Problem is, gutting equalization will make it impossible for some provinces like Nova Scotia, already collecting sky-high provincial taxes, to provide adequate public services. No one has figured a way around that fact. 

So the premiers have turned to the obscure “fiscal stabilization” program, which provides short-term federal relief for provinces whose economies go aground. The program put $250 million into Alberta last year. 

That’s a mere pittance. Why not open the taps? The federal Liberal government isn’t afraid of deficits and the economy is fairly strong. Federal Canada can pay some bills and if that helps bind the country together, it should be done. 

But the politicians can’t have it both ways. Conservatives like Kenney, Moe and Doug Ford can’t bash Ottawa for deficit spending when they are demanding billions more for themselves. 

Still, that’s what they’re doing, through their Conservative counterparts in Parliament. The new session has barely begun, but the Conservatives are already denouncing the Liberals as irresponsible spendthrifts. 

Apparently, national cohesion is exclusively a Liberal government problem. If so, we’re in for more national discontent and might as well get used to it. 

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