Gaggle of premiers produce little of value


July 29, 2013

If anyone wondered why Stephen Harper is reluctant to commit to convene regular meetings with the premiers, they need look no further than the meagre results that came out of the Niagara-on-the-Lake meeting last week.

A grab bag of issues were on the agenda, ranging from cyberbullying to dementia (perhaps in the reverse order), a chorus of demands for more money but less involvement from Ottawa, and the feeblest of consensus on issues that fall squarely in the provincial domain—health care and education, on both of which the grades for most provinces would be a failing D, with the singular exception of Saskatchewan.

The dismal fiscal performance of all, but most notably Ontario (which abuts Detroit), and Quebec should also be the uppermost priority. On a per capita basis, Ontario’s debt is already 80 per cent of Detroit’s and climbing.

When Ottawa signalled its frustration with the mediocre training programs emanating from the provinces and planned a coherent jobs program that would engage employers in making decisions about training, the predictable howls of provincial outrage reached a new crescendo. Quebec, of course, wants to “opt out” but take the money. Others cry “me too.” The fact that we have too many people without the right skills for those jobs that are available in Canada is lost in an all-too-predictable squabble over turf.

The premiers fail to see the bigger picture—we are living in a highly competitive, globalized world not just for investment but for talented workers. Countries that are nimble and make the right job skills training and educational investment choices will come out the clear winners.

If Canada is going to have any chance in the new global jobs race, the premiers are going to have to play on the same team. Canada’s new Minister of Employment and Social Development, Jason Kenney, may have a hard task ahead, but, given the level of his competition, it is a debate he should win.

The same is true of infrastructure. Premier Kathleen Wynne and her colleagues want more control over the way Ottawa doles out cash for new projects instead of having to pitch new initiatives on a case-by-case basis. But until the provinces come up with their own coherent infrastructure development plans, Ottawa should sit tight on the $53.5 billion in new monies it has reportedly set aside for infrastructure spending over the next decade.

It is also vital for the provinces to work together on their infrastructure strategies: Roads and railways don’t stop at provincial boundaries, nor do electricity transmission grids or oil and gas pipelines.

But the Provinces also have to get their own municipal houses in order. Toronto’s transportation gridlock nightmare, which rivals if not exceeds that of Los Angeles, is the result of years of municipal-provincial bickering and a dysfunctional City Hall.

The gift of BC wine from Premier Christy Clark delivered to Premier Kathleen Wynne in the heart of Ontario wine country was accepted no doubt because it was free. Do not try to buy BC wine from the LCBO, however. Provincialism rules maddeningly on wine and interprovincial barriers to trade in other products and services persist despite reported pledges of reform from the Council of the Federation.

These restrictions all constitute a major drag on economic growth in Canada — the costs are conservatively estimated at $14 billion annually. Again, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. It is high time the Premiers got serious about removing these barriers so Canadians, not provincial fiefdoms, come out the winner.

The Council meets regularly in the summer in the hope presumably that no-one will notice. Were it not for the fact that taxpayers are on the hook for these meetings, no-one would mind. Instead of posing amateurishly as first ministers, the Premiers should spend more time trying to get their own houses in order and fixing things like bloated health care and educational systems that fall squarely in their domain.

As Jeffrey Simpson argues in his excellent book Chronic Condition: Why Canada’s Health-Care System Needs to be Dragged into the 21st Century, Canadians are not getting value for the money spent on health care. The system will continue to decline rapidly unless there is real structural reform. The same can also be said about our primary and secondary educational systems.

Instead of feting her fellow Premiers in the beautiful, holiday town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Premier Wynne should have held the meeting in Windsor, where the bankrupt and half-vacant city of Detroit across the Detroit River stands as a stark reminder of the terrible consequences of inept and corrupt state and local government. We shouldn’t be complacent. It could be our future too.

Profligate spending and unsustainable entitlements to buy votes today will not be welcomed by those obliged to pay the bill tomorrow.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.