Finance Minister Jim Flaherty says a new federal plan for grants to promote job skills training is not a take-it-or-leave-it situation for the provinces, as Quebec signalled it wanted nothing to do with the program.
"Not at all, I think there's an opportunity to negotiate and work it out. Situations aren't identical all across the country, we've worked well with the provinces on this issue since 2007, we just think we can do better, and that's based on what we were told by employers," Flaherty told reporters at a Friday press conference in Vancouver.
"We listened across the country as we did our pre-budget consultations and the number 1 issue in the entire country was a mismatch of persons to jobs," Flaherty said. "We feel at the federal level that we need to address that, it's vital for economic growth, jobs and prosperity.
"This is federal money, federal tax money, that is being used for skills training.[Existing] agreements expire in 2014, so we look forward to negotiating with the provinces to make sure this works well."
Flaherty was in Vancouver to speak to the board of trade, as he and other cabinet ministers were fanning out across Canada to sell the merits of the government's 2013 budget, tabled Thursday.
From there, he's heading even farther away from the House of Commons next week, landing in Hong Kong on Monday to speak to the Asia Society as part of a week-long trade and investment-boosting tour of the region.
"Because the emerging economies [of Asia] are where the growth is in the world economy," Flaherty said. "The other reason is that Hong Kong is a financial hub for the world and it is important that we continue to build on the strength of our financial institutions and on the reputation of our country as being a country with very sound fiscal and economic fundamentals.
Closer to their respective home ridings, 22 different cabinet ministers were out making speeches and holding other media-availability sessions throughout the day on Friday, from Revenue Minister Gail Shea in Charlottetown to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq in Iqaluit to Heritage Minister James Moore in Burnaby, B.C.
As a result, there were plenty of empty seats in the Commons front rows on the government side for the early hours of budget debate, as well as Friday's question period.
Details coming later
While the broad strokes of Thursday's budget are up for debate now, the finer details will wait for the introduction of the government's budget implementation bill later this spring.
Government House Leader Peter Van Loan told reporters Friday that MPs will vote on the budget motion next Wednesday, with the implementation bill expected to be introduced shortly after Parliament's two-week Easter recess, in mid-April.
Exactly how government programs and services will be affected by continuing belt-tightening is also not clear. Direct program expenses — which exclude major transfers to other levels of government — are projected to plunge almost $4 billion this year and another $2.5 billion in 2014-15.
Opposition MPs were expressing concern over a particular line in the budget document that says the government "will introduce legislation as needed to consolidate operations and eliminate redundant organizations."
What's more, some of the proposals in this year's budget require negotiations with the provinces, including a "Canada Job Grant" skills training program.
Ottawa, the provinces and employers would equally share the costs of a $15,000 to help train workers for specific jobs. The federal government's spending on training will stay the same, but provinces will be on the hook for new money.
The Bloc Québécois characterized Thursday's budget as a "frontal attack on Quebec and its workers," panning the changes to skills training as interference in provincial jurisdiction.
Quebec wants out
The Quebec government has formally requested to be excluded from the new federal skills-training program.
The province's Parti Québécois government is particularly livid about the budget, and has held two news conferences 18 hours apart in order to blast it.
It stresses that labour training was transferred to the provinces after a hard-won battle in the wake of the 1995 Quebec independence vote.
And it says its program works.
"We're asking for Quebec to be excused from this federal program," Labour Minister Agnes Maltais said Friday.
"We refuse to go 15 years backward."
Perhaps even more than the labour-training change, the Parti Quebecois government is furious about the end of a tax credit for union venture-capital funds, which hits Quebec almost exclusively.
The provincial government links the disappearance of that credit to a new economic development fund for Ontario worth nearly $1 billion.
"While Ontario is getting $900 million for its manufacturing industry," said federal-provincial minister Alexandre Cloutier, "Quebec is getting peanuts from Ottawa."
Blame the PQ government?
On Thursday night, Quebec's finance minister, Nicolas Marceau, called the federal budget an act of "economic sabotage" against Quebec and an attack on the province, which gave the federal Conservatives few seats in the last election.
The opposition parties in Quebec are also upset about the budget, but they're trying to pin their disappointment on the provincial government. They say the PQ is more determined to pick fights with Ottawa than work with it and, as a result, has no leverage whatsoever.
Cloutier says other provinces don't have sovereigntist governments, and the program was imposed on them anyway, and he also notes that the last Quebec government had plenty of policies forced on it by the Harper Tories.
Quebec's main business lobby, the Conseil du patronat, was more favourable toward the budget. However, it urged caution in revamping the skills-training system.