Premiers, Joe Oliver spar over infrastructure funding ahead of 2015 election

Canada's premiers fired back at Finance Minister Joe Oliver who earlier in the day expressed dismay at their call for further investments in infrastructure given that plummeting oil prices threaten Ottawa's bottom line.

Joe Oliver rejects call for federal infrastructure boost as 'massive deficit program'

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left to right, New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark and Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski take part in Canada's premiers meeting in Ottawa on Friday, January 30, 2015. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's premiers emerged from a meeting in Ottawa united in their call for further strategic investments in infrastructure and the need to focus on the health-care of seniors as the country heads toward a federal election later this year.

Ontario's Kathleen Wynne, who's advocated a multi-billion-dollar partnership between the federal government and the provinces on infrastructure, fired back at Finance Minister Joe Oliver who earlier in the day expressed dismay that the premiers were looking for further investments in infrastructure as plummeting oil prices threaten Ottawa's bottom line.

"The opposition and some premiers appear oblivious to the consequences of the current global instability and the dramatic decline in the price of oil," Oliver said in a written statement on Friday.

"This is precisely the wrong time to launch a massive deficit program that would undermine investor confidence, erode our credit standing, weaken our ability to withstand further international shocks, add to our debt burden, reduce our ability to support social programs and burden our children with our expenditures," Oliver said.

Wynne called Oliver's response unfortunate and short-sighted, at the end of the Council of the Federation's winter meeting.

Time for infrastructure now, premiers say

"I believe the response that Mr. Oliver gave so quickly to our discussions really demonstrates, in my opinion, that the oblivion is not on the part of the premiers.

"The oblivion is actually on the part of the federal government that is apparently not listening to all of the voices at this table who have said that... investment in infrastructure is important on a number of fronts," Wynne said.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said the timing of Oliver's missive could not have been worse.

The premiers received an economic briefing today from Kevin Lynch, vice chair of the BMO Financial Group, and chief among his recommendations, Couillard said, was the need for "accelerated investments in infrastructure."

Couillard said infrastructure spending was "logical," "reasonable" and would create jobs across the country.

The meeting's host, P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz, said the country is facing an infrastructure "deficit."

Canada spends just 3.5 per cent of its GDP on infrastructure, he noted, while other countries spend more. The premiers agreed during the meeting that all of their jurisdictions need new or updated bridges, roads and public buildings, Ghiz said.

There was a broad consensus around the table on seniors' health care, according to those on the sidelines of the meeting.

David Granovsky, head of government relations for the Canadian Nurses Association, said his organization had urged Ghiz to include a national seniors' health care strategy on the agenda and called it a significant development that the premiers gave the issue such close attention.

Ghiz also said the premiers also agreed to work with local law enforcement agencies in their jurisdictions to ensure Canadians are safe from terrorism.

Energy East pipeline

Ghiz said he and his counterparts made great progress on the so-called Canadian Energy Strategy, an initiative involving all 13 premiers, focused on climate change and clean energy.

The provinces discussed TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline, Ghiz said. That $12 billion project would carry oil from the western provinces to the Bay of Fundy.

Last year, Wynne and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard — who have become close allies on climate, in particular — laid out a list of requirements that would determine whether they'd throw their support behind Energy East.

Couillard was to update his counterparts about the so-called Canadian Energy Strategy today. It's an initiative involving all 13 provinces and territories focused on climate change and clean energy.

The premiers — all but Alberta's Jim Prentice and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall — met in a hotel just a few blocks from Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.

Wynne invited the prime minister to the meeting, but he declined to attend. Harper has not met with the premiers as a group for several years.

Ghiz ribbed Harper for meeting with Wynne on the sidelines of a hockey tournament earlier this month, the first time the two had met in a year.

"If I had planned it a little bit better, maybe I would have planned this meeting around the World Junior Hockey championships and he would have been here, but, you know, hindsight is 20-20," he said.

For all the chuckles, however, there was evidence of genuine antagonism between provincial and federal officials as some griped off the record about the Conservatives' terror bill announcement. Several suggested the Tories deliberately announced the bill on Friday to steal thunder from their meeting.

With files from CBC News