New Brunswick·Analysis

Brian Gallant chooses alignment with Trudeau over fellow premiers

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant handed Justin Trudeau a big Christmas present on Thursday in striking a bilateral deal on health-care funding.

Bilateral deal for health-care funding shatters united front among provinces after talks break down

New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant doesn't deny he was working in tandem with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to get a health-funding deal for the province. (Instagram/Brian Gallant)

Brian Gallant handed Justin Trudeau a big Christmas present on Thursday.

The New Brunswick premier had a choice: stand with other provincial premiers in holding out for a sweeping national health-care deal — and risk ending up with no new money —or sign his own agreement with the prime minister.

Not surprisingly, Gallant chose Trudeau, a fellow Liberal, and got to stuff his own stocking with an extra $230 million in health funding.

In the process, he shattered the united front among provinces, angering those that wanted to maintain a hard line against Ottawa.

But that carries little political risk: Gallant ends up aligned with a still-popular prime minister, while scorned by politicians from other provinces who have little public profile in New Brunswick.

"I have not met one premier that doesn't go to the table … advocating for their province or territory. I respect that. That's their job. That's our job as well," Gallant said.

"I've never met any [premier] who doesn't have their people at heart and in mind when they're having these discussions. I hope that my counterparts recognize that that's my job as well."

Gallant shoots back

At the same time, Gallant took shots at other provinces Thursday, accusing some of their ministers of not even looking at a compromise he offered during Monday's federal-provincial meeting.

Quebec Health Minister Gaetan Barrette says Brian Gallant's compromise proposal for a national health-care funding agreement was 'completely bizarre.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
"The proposal was just skimmed over, unfortunately, and I'm not sure people even read it at that time," he said.

Quebec's health minister, Gaétan Barrette, told Radio-Canada Acadie's Le Reveil Thursday that Gallant's proposal was "completely bizarre" and "hyper-complicated," touching on other federal funding programs including equalization and the social transfer.

Gallant blasted back Thursday, pointing out how jealously Quebec guards its provincial autonomy and jurisdiction on health care.

"If another province were to go into Quebec and tell Quebecers and the Quebec government how they should do health care and negotiate with the federal government, I think we all know what the reaction of the Quebec government would be," he said.

Bilateral details

The bilateral agreement Gallant announced will involve:

  • Annual increases in federal health transfers of three per cent a year or the rate of national GDP growth, whichever is higher, a formula established by the Harper government that is already going into effect for all provinces.
  • An additional $230 million over 10 years for home-care and mental-health programs, bringing the overall annual health increases to an estimated 4.1 per cent.
  • An option that New Brunswick can adopt the terms of any bilateral deal Ottawa signs with another province if is more generous.
  • Ottawa and New Brunswick start negotiating performance indicators in the coming weeks that will allow the public to measure how the new money is being spent.
  • No formula to add more money as New Brunswick's population ages, something Gallant had been seeking. But he said the home-care funding would address the province's need for help paying for senior care.

Federal-provincial talks for a new health funding agreement collapsed on Monday when Ottawa insisted that the provinces agree to report to Ottawa on how they spend the money for home care and mental health.

When some provinces balked at that, the talks ended with no deal. New Brunswick Finance Minister Cathy Rogers announced almost immediately that the province would pursue its own agreements.

Others condemn deal

Health ministers from provinces who resisted performance indicators condemned the New Brunswick deal.

Manitoba's Kelvin Goertzen said if his province adopted the same template, it would lose $1 billion in health funding over the next decade. Barrette said the deal will lead to Ottawa paying for a smaller share of provincial health care.

Barrette also accused Gallant of trying to help his federal Liberal allies break what had been a united provincial front.

"There's no doubt," Barrette told Radio-Canada before Gallant's announcement. "We know there's a connection between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Gallant. The tactic was pretty obvious."

The tactic was pretty obvious.- Gaétan Barrette, Quebec health minister

Gallant said if the other provinces want to keep negotiating a national health deal as a bloc, "all the more power to them," he said. "I will help them do that if I can."

But he said he wanted New Brunswick's funding locked down as both Ottawa and the province work to finalize their 2017-18 budgets.

Gallant didn't deny he and Trudeau were working in tandem — but he said it was about policy, not politics.

"We actually see it as a strength to have the same sort of agenda and have many of the same priorities as the Trudeau government," he said.

Whatever the motive, Gallant's bilateral deal may prove to be a defining moment, one that aligns him even more closely with Trudeau and separates him from his provincial counterparts more than ever before.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.