Premiers agree to ask Ottawa for more cash for health care and to help with slumping revenues – The Globe and Mail

Premiers agree to ask Ottawa for more cash for health care and to help with slumping revenues - The Globe and Mail
Premiers meet on Doug Fords turf to push Ottawa for more money
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Canadas provincial and territorial leaders have agreed to press the federal government to increase its funding for health care and provide more cash to help provinces suffering from economic downturns driven by slumping markets for natural resources.

The countrys 13 premiers, who make up the Council of the Federation, met at a hotel near Torontos Pearson International Airport in a summit hosted by Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has in recent weeks frequently called for national unity in the face of divisions highlighted by the results of the October federal election.

Premiers gather in Toronto on Monday to try to come up with a cohesive plan to advance their interests in a national context. The meeting comes just weeks after Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals returned to power, but with a minority government and no Grit MPs from Alberta or Saskatchewan.

They will meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as early as January – and sent a letter on Monday to him outlining their demands.

According to a joint statement issued after their meeting, the premiers are asking Ottawa for health transfers from the federal government to rise by 5.2 per cent a year, faster than the current rate of 3 per cent. The premiers also said that any proposed national pharmacare plan must be developed in partnership with provinces and territories, and must have an opt-out for provinces.

OTTAWA —  As provincial and territorial leaders prepare to gather, new survey results suggest two western premiers pushing Ottawa to help kickstart their economies face some uneasiness among voters back home.

The premiers also want to see changes to the countrys fiscal stabilization program, which provides cash to provinces facing economic hardship. They suggest removing a cap on the per capita limit on aid, and making changes to allow the program to provide more help to provinces, such as Alberta, suffering from declines in their resource industries.

Among those who identified as Conservative voters, 48 per cent said he should remain at the helm, while 40 per cent said he should resign. Twelve per cent said they did not know or refused to answer the question.

This alone, right today, sends a very clear message … that we may have our differences, but Canada is united, Mr. Ford told a press conference after the meeting. Were a united nation. And as youve seen at this meeting, when some of the provinces are struggling, were all there. Were going to be there. We support them. Weve got their back.”

The polling industry’s professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

The document does not mention the federal governments carbon tax, which Mr. Ford, Albertas Jason Kenney and Saskatchewans Scott Moe continue to fight in court. Nor does it actually mention the word pipeline, which is a source of a disagreement for the premiers, with Quebec and British Columbia long at loggerheads with Alberta over the issue.

But it leads with its desire to boost Canadas economic competitiveness, and calls for the continuing development of Canadas natural resources in a responsible manner, and asks Ottawa to work with the provinces on improvements to the environmental assessment regime, which is used to approve pipelines and other projects – while exempting projects in provincial-territorial jurisdiction.

"This was a tremendous moment of solidarity," he said. "Ive been trying to convey to Albertans that we are not alone, or isolated in the federation, that there are provincial and territorial governments who get what were going through and who understand our ask for a fair deal in the Canadian federation."

The document also calls for expanding international trade to allow natural resources to get to global markets, but only urges Ottawa to work to eliminate U.S. protectionist measures on softwood lumber and infrastructure.

In a pre-meeting photo-op on Monday, Mr. Ford donned a Winnipeg Blue Bombers jersey, the result of a lost Grey Cup bet with Manitobas Brian Pallister. Mr. Ford handed out Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jerseys to the visiting premiers, some of whom reluctantly accepted them. The Ontario Premier attended the Leafs game on Saturday night in Toronto with the premiers of Newfoundland, Nunavut and Quebec.

Doug Ford, left, Premier of Ontario, gives a Maple Leafs jersey to Francois Legault, Premier of Quebec, during a meeting of the Council of the Federation which comprises all 13 provincial and territorial Premiers in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, December 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

On Sunday, Mr. Ford, Mr. Moe, who chairs the council, and New Brunswicks Blaine Higgs announced a deal to develop nuclear-reactor technology. The three premiers signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding to collaborate on small modular reactors, a project they say would generate clean and low-cost energy. Mr. Moe told reporters the reactors will not be built for five to 10 years, but would help the provinces reduce carbon emissions and move away from non-renewable energy sources such as coal.

Premier of Ontario Doug Ford, right, gives a Maple Leafs jersey to Premier of Alberta Jason Kenney during a meeting of the Council of the Federation which comprises all 13 provincial and territorial Premiers in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, December 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Prior to Mondays meeting, the Prime Ministers Office said Mr. Trudeau looks forward to hearing about the outcome.

Several premiers said that now may not be the right time for a national pharmacare program — a promise the Liberals made during the federal election and that will require discussion with the provinces — with funding needed to address hospital overcrowding and growing wait times.

The Prime Minister will continue having constructive discussions with all premiers with an open mind and a genuine intention to work together on issues that matter to Canadians across the country, the PMO said in a statement.

"Whatever the commitment is, it has to be long-term, it has to be the responsibility of the federal government, but I do believe that no matter where I go, Canadians want to entertain and want us to explore the options around a national pharmacare program," he said.

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has called for the cap to be removed, as the money his province has received is barely scratching the surface of the financial impact of low oil prices. He thanked his fellow premiers Monday for making fiscal stabilization amendments a priority.

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This file has been updated please see: With national unity under stress, premiers back a budget fix to help oil-rich provinces The leaders of Canada's provinces and territories are in Ontario Premier Doug Ford's backyard today, looking to craft a policy agenda they hope will be palatable to the minority Liberal government in Ottawa.

Kenney gains leverage in the federation at premiers meeting

While many of the premiers have met one-on-one with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since the Oct. 21 election, the Toronto-area meeting is the first time all the premiers are meeting as a group since voters returned Trudeau to Ottawa with a second mandate.

Premiers say theyve reached consensus on priority areas

On the way into the meeting Monday, all premiers who spoke to the media said they will be looking for more money from Ottawa to shore up provincial budgets, some of which have been hit by sinking oil prices and soaring health-care costs.

Among those who identified as Conservative voters, 48 per cent said he should remain at the helm, while 40 per cent said he should resign. Twelve per cent said they did not know or refused to answer the question.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said health care will be the most pressing agenda item at this meeting. He said the federal government is pushing a national prescription drug plan at a time when the country's existing health care system is already stretched.

OTTAWA — As provincial and territorial leaders prepare to gather, new survey results suggest two western premiers pushing Ottawa to help kick-start their economies face some uneasiness among voters back home.

"Our patients are waiting longer and longer for surgeries, emergency rooms, for hips and knees, you name it. This is an issue we need to focus on. Pharmacare — we can get to that later. Let's get the sustainable funding for health care," he told reporters on his way into the meeting Monday.

The Council of the Federation, which is composed largely of conservative-minded premiers, are meeting at Ford's suggestion in an airport hotel not far from his Etobicoke North riding.

The survey also looked at views on the political fate of Andrew Scheer, who faces calls from several quarters to step down as federal Conservative leader after failing to unseat Trudeaus Liberals.

SENDS A CLEAR MESSAGE: Premiers kick off meeting

Ford, who was wearing Winnipeg Blue Bombers jersey Monday after losing a bet to Pallister over the Grey Cup, is also keen to make health-care funding a priority at the one-day meeting.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball: "This will get more expensive, drugs and diseases are becoming more complicated, more complex… If indeed we go down this road it has to be long-term, it has to be sustainable. The last thing we want to see is a program that comes in and is eroded… We could put a big focus on wait times, and we could reduce our wait times, but if when they leave that physicians office, or leave that health practitioners office and they need medication and they cant afford it then, then what was the point of reducing the waitlist?"

The premiers have been pushing Ottawa to lift the current health care spending growth cap — currently set at three per cent each year — to help provinces tackle their single biggest budget line item.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister: "If you cant sustain healthcare and all the multitude of services that we offer, effectively, then we will have lineups grow as they have grown over the last number of years right across the country in every category… if you cant get that right, dont start with another program, get that right, start by getting that right, because there are too many people across this country waiting far too long to get care."

Doug Ford pays up on bet, embraces Winnipeg Blue and Gold at premiers meeting

Ford said the Canada Health Transfer — the money the federal government sends to the provinces and territories to help them pay for health care — should grow by 5.2 per cent a year to better address mounting costs in the sector as the country's population ages.

British Columbia Premier John Horgan: "British Columbia has a comprehensive pharmacare program already…. We would welcome dialogue with the federal government on standards across the country… We were welcoming a discussion about a national pharmacare plan but those of us who already have significant plans would prefer that we first and foremost get back to a more equitable distribution of resources to deliver healthcare broadly."

The Liberal campaign platform pledged $6 billion over four years in new health spending, with funding earmarked for boosting the number of doctors, a move toward a pharmacare program and improvements to mental-health services.

The premiers met in Mississauga, Ont. on Monday and wrapped the meeting with a unified call for the federal government to increase funding by 5.2 per cent to the Canada Health Transfer. They also discussed national pharmacare and emphasized that, should the federal Liberals forge ahead with their election promise, provinces should be allowed to opt-out.

Pallister said Monday there should be fewer strings attached to the funding Ottawa sends to the provinces, adding the policy area falls under provincial jurisdiction.

Ford, a Progressive Conservative, has tried to present Ontario as unifier at a time when national unity seems to be threatened by fractious relations between Ottawa and the resource-rich provinces in the West. It's a role the province has played in the past during the constitutional squabbles of the 1980s and 1990s.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe: "We have a very similar, what we view as a comprehensive program, similar to British Columbias, but if the federal government does want to engage on an additional effort on pharmacare, thats fine, it needs to be fair for all Canadians and it needs to be funded by the federal government."

"With a group of premiers — all 13 are showing up — we're going to have disagreements, but I think that's healthy, to be very frank," Ford said.

Jason Kenney, right, Premier of Alberta speaks to the media during press conference after a meeting of the Council of the Federation, which comprises all 13 provincial and territorial leaders, in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Premiers meet to chart demands before sit-down with Trudeau early next year

"We have to listen to the people out West and listen to their concerns. A lot of people are struggling out West. I mentioned that to the prime minister as well, and he agrees. He wants to support everyone right across this country and I'm going to support the prime minister by making sure we get as much support as possible."

Earlier in the day, Ontario Premier Doug Ford kicked off the meeting by donning a Winnipeg Blue Bombers jersey, after he lost a bet to Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister over the Grey Cup, in which the Winnipeg team beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Ford then handed out Toronto Maple Leafs jerseys to all the premiers and welcomed them to Ontario.

"We want to send the message around the world that we're a united Canada. We're stronger together and we'll get over these bumps," Ford said, referring to disagreements between Western Canada and Ottawa.

Council consensus: what premiers are hoping for out of Mondays meeting

After the Liberal government introduced a series of measures perceived as an affront to the country's natural resources sector, voters this October turfed all Liberal MPs between Manitoba and B.C.

Canadas premiers want ability to opt out of national pharmacare program

Since the election, Trudeau has restructured his cabinet, redeploying his top lieutenant, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, from the foreign affairs file to intergovernmental affairs as he looks to tamp down growing unease in Western Canada. Freeland, a native of Peace River, Alta., has assumed the national unity file.

“We were very, very productive when we met in Saskatchewan (at the last premiers’ meeting),” Ford said. “Premier Moe did an incredible job. Yes, we all have our wishlist, but he’s an expert in narrowing that list down.”

Speaking to reporters Sunday ahead of Monday's meeting, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he hopes the 13 provincial and territorial leaders can reach a consensus on joint priorities they can ask the federal Liberals to act on now — such as a tweak to the fiscal framework and directing more money to the provinces for health care.

The premiers will craft a list of priorities they can present to Trudeau when they all gather for a formal first ministers' meeting, which is expected in January.

"My No. 1 priority is to come to a consensus on a number of issues on behalf of all Canadians, as well as on behalf of providing that guidance from coast to coast to coast to what we have now — a minority federal administration," Moe said.

Moe, the current chair of the Council of the Federation, has had a poor relationship with the federal Liberals. He left a recent meeting with Trudeau expressing frustration, saying he only heard "more of the same" from the prime minister. Moe has urged a radical rethink of Bill C-69, the controversial Environmental Assessment Act that opponents say will make it difficult to build new natural resources projects. Ottawa has so far rebuffed calls for the repeal of, or major amendments to, the legislation.

"This was a tremendous moment of solidarity," he said. "Ive been trying to convey to Albertans that we are not alone, or isolated in the federation, that there are provincial and territorial governments who get what were going through and who understand our ask for a fair deal in the Canadian federation."

Moe and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney also have urged Ottawa to revisit the current equalization formula, something they have said is unfair.

While a major reworking of the formula seems unlikely, the two western premiers have said they will push for changes to the fiscal stabilization program and they hope to bring the other premiers onside.

Doug Ford, left, Premier of Ontario, gives a Maple Leafs jersey to Francois Legault, Premier of Quebec, during a meeting of the Council of the Federation which comprises all 13 provincial and territorial Premiers in Mississauga, Ont., on Monday, December 2, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Kenney — who recently introduced an austerity budget in an effort to get the province back on a more sound fiscal footing amid a prolonged oil price slump — has said Ottawa should retroactively change the formula to ensure his province can tap more money.

The program, which is administered by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, provides financial assistance to any province faced with a year-over-year decline in its non-resource revenues greater than five per cent.

The problem for Kenney is that his province already has been floated the maximum amount the program allows for each year — $60 per person or, in the case of Alberta, $250 million a year — a sum he said is inadequate given the size of the budget hole the province is facing.

In 2015–16, for example, the province's revenues contracted by a staggering $8.8 billion, and yet this insurance-like program paid out just $248 million.

Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, a Liberal, has said a change to equalization is the "wrong target" but he'd be open to tweaking the stabilization program.

"We need to be able to have a fund that's not tied to equalization, but that can respond within the next year. If Alberta is doing well, Newfoundland and Labrador will do well, Saskatchewan will do well, and so, therefore, all of Canada will benefit," he said.

Academics, including the University of Calgary's Bev Dahlby, have suggested that Alberta focus its energies on securing a new deal from Ottawa on this program, arguing that pursuing a change to the equalization formula (a non-starter for provinces like Quebec and those in Atlantic Canada, which rely on the program as it is currently constituted) is a waste of political capital.

"A fair formula for a fiscal stabilization program should meet the same criteria as any good insurance policy. It should cover only significant losses … It should include a deductible to ensure that the insured party, the province in this case, still has an incentive to manage their fiscal affairs responsibly. And it should offer simple and transparent terms along with a streamlined claims process," Dahlby wrote in a June 2019 paper on the topic.

"Improving the formula will not save Alberta and other resource-rich provinces from all the pain of the occasional resource bust, but it will help alleviate some of it," he said.

Ford, Moe and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs also signed a memorandum Sunday that will commit the three provinces to studying nuclear reactor technology — the deployment of small, modular reactors. The leaders said it would help their provinces lower greenhouse gas emissions as Canada shifts from coal-fired power plants to less carbon-intensive sources of energy.

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at [email protected]

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