Let's make a deal: Time for Pallister's health-care troublemaking to end

It is past time for Premier Brian Pallister to end the escalating feud with the Trudeau government over financial transfers for health care.

Manitoba is the only holdout province that has not agreed to a new plan for funding health care

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) meets with Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities 2016 Annual Conference in Winnipeg on Friday, June 3, 2016. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

It is past time for Premier Brian Pallister to end the escalating feud with the Trudeau government over financial transfers for health care.

Manitoba is the only holdout province that has not agreed to a new 10-year plan for funding health care.

Frustration and consternation over Pallister's negotiating approaches and his high-octane rhetoric have been growing inside both the federal cabinet and the bureaucracy in Ottawa.

Beginning last fall, Pallister accused the Liberals of breaking a 2015 election promise to enrich the cost-sharing formula for health care that the Conservative government of Stephen Harper had imposed unilaterally in 2011.

He then sought to create a united front among the provinces to oppose the Liberal replacement plan that failed to match rising health costs.

The united front fell apart within days as one province after another accepted a deal, in some cases customized to meet their needs.

Factory of the Future 

Pallister then accused Ottawa of practising a divide and conquer strategy.

Once Manitoba stood alone, he claimed there were threats from the federal government, such as the loss of the $60 million in federal funding for the Factory of the Future.

Even after the prime minister said in Winnipeg that his government remains "committed to the Factory of the Future," the premier still insisted on a written commitment, implying that the word of the prime minister was not to be trusted.
Emergency room in a hospital (Claude Vickery/CBC)

Pallister also complained that linking unrelated files was an unhelpful, hardball tactic, even though he had earlier engaged in such linkage by insisting Manitoba would not sign a climate change agreement unless the prime minister hosted a first ministers meeting on health care.

There is a lot at stake in this fight. Manitoba stands to gain $1.355 billion from the main Canada Health Transfer in 2017-18, an amount already written into the federal budget. Ottawa is offering an additional amount of approximately $441 million earmarked for home care and mental health.

Can't afford to turn money down

It is the latter amount that is at risk if the premier persists with his standoff with Ottawa. A cash-strapped province like Manitoba, which spends $6.5 billion or 40 per cent of the provincial budget on health care, cannot afford to forego the additional money.

Pallister argues that the supplementary federal money earmarked for mental health and long-term care does not match Manitoba's health spending priorities in the areas of kidney disease and Aboriginal health. However, declining extra money will not help with managing the seemingly insatiable demands for spending in all domains of health care.

The current dispute is somewhat outside the political tradition of Manitoba within the federal system.

Historically, Manitoba has been a dealmaker, not a troublemaker. Both Conservative and NDP premiers have recognized that Manitoba cannot afford to go it alone. After all, Manitoba has approximately four per cent of the national population, which means limited political clout in Ottawa compared to Ontario and Quebec.

In economic terms, Manitoba remains a have-less province that still qualifies for equalization payments from Ottawa. Just less than 30 per cent of Manitoba's provincial revenues are transfer payments from Ottawa.

In recognition of these fundamental political and economic facts, Manitoba's premiers have generally sought to play an active, practical and constructive role in the intergovernmental arena.

In general, Manitoba's approach has favoured collaboration over confrontation (which is not to say there has never been fights in the past). Compared to other provinces, like Quebec and Alberta, Manitoba has been more accepting of national policy leadership and spending in areas of provincial responsibility like health because this allows for greater progress to be made within the province.

Most Manitoba premiers have recognized the need to leverage our limited power by finding allies among the provinces and territories. Success involves not just obtaining benefits for Manitoba, but also blocking or minimizing potential harm caused by decisions made in Ottawa and elsewhere.

Manitoba's success in the intergovernmental arena depends upon the prevailing economic and political circumstances, the issues on the federal-provincial agenda in a given time period and the leadership style and political skills of the premier. Elsewhere I have argued that during the decade from 1999 to 2009, when Gary Doer served as premier, Manitoba "punched above its weight" in the intergovernmental arena. It is interesting to contrast his success in making deals with the trouble Brian Pallister is having at this early stage in his premiership.

A number of circumstances favoured Doer. The Manitoba economy was performing better after a downturn in the mid-'90s and the former Filmon government had brought expenditures under better control. Doer had promised to retain Filmon's balanced budget law, so deficits and debt were not highly contentious. The national government had returned to surplus after drastic cutbacks, including to federal transfer payments. From 2004 to 2011, there were minority Liberal and Conservative governments that were preoccupied with their political survival, and they bought peace with the provinces by restoring some of the funding that had been cut in the recent past.

Gary Doer served as premier from 1999 to 2009. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

It also helped Manitoba's cause that Doer achieved three consecutive majority governments and became the most popular premier in the country.

Fortunately for Manitoba, Doer had the leadership style and skill to take advantage of these fortuitous circumstances. He is a naturally gifted, instinctive politician. In terms of philosophy, he is a pragmatic moderate and opportunistic in the sense of looking for windows of opportunity to move issues forward. He possesses contextual intelligence in the sense that he is skilled at reading situations, issues and people so as to identify what is politically feasible. He developed his negotiating skills serving as the leader of a public sector union. He learned to avoid taking strong, fixed positions at the outset, personalizing disputes, and losing his cool when bargaining got tough. He recognized the dangers of linking issues when the other party to a negotiation was in a dominant position. He also developed confidence in his capacity to channel conflicts in constructive directions in order to broker a deal.

Doer has excellent interpersonal skills. Over his time in public life, he developed an impressive network of contacts and friendships. He got along with leaders of other governments regardless of party lines, including Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper and Liberal premier Jean Charest of Quebec. Bonds of mutual respect, trust and support developed, leading to additional leverage for Manitoba in intergovernmental negotiations.

It is early in Brian Pallister's premiership. He is a student of leadership, but is a less instinctive leader than Doer. He describes himself as "an old union guy" but his time in the Manitoba Teachers' Society was quite short. He is more ideological than Doer, which makes for less flexibility in trying to broker a deal. Many people see him as highly competitive, combative and stubborn; some say he is prone to blow up when things don't go his way. By his own admission, he is not an easy person to get to know.

These attributes may be a potential handicap in working the intergovernmental networks on behalf of Manitoba.

On the other hand, starting from humble circumstances, Brian Pallister has achieved considerable success in his life, which suggests he has the capacity to learn and grow as a leader.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Paul G. Thomas is a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba where he taught Canadian politics for over 40 years. Many decades ago, he developed his lifelong interest in intergovernmental affairs in his first job out of university as a policy analyst for federal-provincial relations in Manitoba's department of finance. He admires both Gary Doer and Brian Pallister.