The Trudeau Liberals are moving into the second phase of their mandate, investing some of the political capital they collected in the first phase (the honeymoon or “sunny ways” period) to assert the primacy of the federal government in three areas of national concern.
These are climate change, pipelines and the preservation of medicare. Taken together, the Liberals’ approaches in these areas signal a desire to reestablish a muscular federalism reminiscent of the Pierre Trudeau era.
On climate change, Justin will not make the mistake of alienating the western provinces the way his father did with his national energy policy, but he is prepared to challenge them as he moves to establish a carbon levy in the wake of the Paris agreement on greenhouse gas emissions.
While his Environment Minister Catherine McKenna was in Montreal discussing carbon pricing, Trudeau announced that, absent an agreement with the provinces, Ottawa would impose a carbon levy – call it what it is, a tax – starting at $10 a tonne in 2018 and rising to $50 in 2022.
Brad Wall, the right-wing premier of Saskatchewan was appalled, predictably. He cited the damage the tax could do to the Saskatchewan economy. Politically, however, the Liberals can afford to isolate Wall. Polls show that 60 per cent of Canadians support a national carbon price and, besides, the Liberals hold only one of Saskatchewan’s 14 seats (cabinet minister Ralph Goodale) with no early prospect of adding any more.
Alberta’s NDP premier Rachel Notley is a more important outlier, but she is not very far offside. Her government has already adopted a carbon-pricing plan (as have British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec). She has indicated she is prepared to buy into the national plan if Trudeau would do her one little favour: approve construction of a pipeline, west or east, to carry bitumen from the oil sands to market.
That’s a favour Trudeau could grant – it being understood that the approval process and drawn-out consultation with first nations and other stakeholders would mean that work would not actually begin until safely after the next federal election in 2019.
The Atlantic premiers, especially Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, are unhappy with the carbon tax, too, and their region is vitally important to Trudeau’s Liberals who won all 32 seats there in 2015. But there is something the prime minister can do to make them feel better.
That’s a Supreme Court appointment. The Prime Minister is about to fill a vacancy caused by the retirement of Justice Thomas Cromwell of Nova Scotia. The Atlantic provinces are anxious to protect region’s one seat on the high court. Trudeau is known to want to see visible minorities, aboriginals and more women on the court.
There has never been an aboriginal justice. A nearly ideal candidate, as some Liberals see her, is Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a bilingual judge and legal scholar with a doctorate from Harvard Law School. She is the daughter of Scottish mother and a Cree father. On leave from the Saskatchewan Provincial Court, she has been in British Columbia for a decade as the province’s first Representative for Children and Youth.
Watch for Trudeau to appoint a judge who hails from Atlantic Canada this time, while holding Turpel-Lafond in reserve for the next vacancy in two years’ time when Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who is from B.C., retires from the bench.
The third area of national concern where the Trudeau government is asserting itself is the preservation of medicare. Health Minister Jane Philpott meets provincial ministers this week to discuss a new health accord. The issues are familiar. The provinces want more money. Ottawa wants more say in how the money is spent.
Trudeau wants the provinces to agree to invest more in home care – a key Liberal election promise – and to make mental health services more accessible and prescription drugs cheaper.
He can get what he wants – and it won’t cost him a pipeline or a Supreme Court appointment. All it will cost is a nice little bump from the annual $36 billion Ottawa is currently contributing to medicare.