Opinion-Policy Nexus

With four months to go before it officially begins, everyone seems to agree that the 2019 federal election will be the nastiest in many years,

The last one, in 2015, was no Sunday school picnic, but the one on Oct. 21 promises to be worse. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, having thrown away its early popularity, has handed its opponents enough ammunition to sink a supertanker. The Conservatives smell blood. They have more campaign cash than they can spend and more attack ads than they can stuff up their sleeves. And they are backed by a new alliance of right-wing provincial leaders who are eager to bring down the federal Liberals.

What makes this nasty election more brutish than its predecessors is the determination of the premiers – of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, cheered on by New Brunswick – to exploit the election to weaken the federal authority and seize more constitutional power for their provinces.

They lost the first round, narrowly, last week when the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal upheld Ottawa’s right to impose a carbon tax in provinces that have not implemented their own carbon-reduction plans. More challenges are on the way from other provinces. Some of them, like Saskatchewan’s, will land on the doorstep of the Supreme Court of Canada.

Carbon policy may be just the first skirmish. Some premiers would like nothing better than to roll back federal powers in fields from health care to immigration policy.

Constitutional struggles are nothing new. They are part of the cycle of political life, waxing in the 1960s and 1970s and waning following the 1980s battle over patriation and the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Today’s politicians might think back to the battle over the introduction of medicare in the mid-1960s. At the time, Canadians – except those in Saskatchewan, where Tommy Douglas had led the way – were either covered by a patchwork of private health insurance plans or had no coverage. 

The provinces regarded health care as their exclusive preserve. Some of them bitterly resented what they saw as a federal intrusion when Lester Pearson’s minority Liberal government proposed a national health insurance system in which Ottawa would pick up half of the tab. Provinces would operate their own plans, but to quality for the federal money they would have to meet five conditions laid down by Ottawa.

The five: plans had to be publicly administered (not by insurance companies or groups of doctors); they had to be comprehensive (covering all medically necessary services); they had to be universal (coverage for all without premiums); they had to accessible (no user fees); and they had to be portable (individuals to remain protected when away from their province).

Medicare had already provoked a province-wide strike by doctors when it was introduced by the CCF government in Saskatchewan, and passions were still high when the Pearson government made its move.

The provincial charge against medicare was led by the Progressive Conservative premier of Ontario, John Robarts. He called it a “Machiavellian plot” to blackmail the provinces. Ontario residents would have to pay, though their income tax, their share of the costs of medicare, but they would reap no benefit unless the provincial government opted in and accepted the five conditions.

Robarts was from London, Ont., home of London Life and other insurance companies that were totally opposed to medicare. But there was more to it than that.

I covered the medicare debate for the Globe and Mail and, as it happened, I knew Robarts from family connections in London. His anti-medicare rhetoric was a bluff, a temporary façade meant to placate the insurance industry.

He knew medicare was both desirable and inevitable. He was wise enough to recognize it was in the national interest, and he soon brought Ontario into the fold.

Climate change clearly involves the national interest, too. Would that premiers Doug Ford, Jason Kenney and the others who want to pump up their powers had the wisdom to realize that the national interest must take precedence over provincial ambitions.


Tuesday, May 7, 2019 - 10:49