Liberals must sell budget to premiers after 'challenging' health talks

Liberal MPs stuck around Ottawa on a rare Saturday to hammer out a plan to sell their recent budget to constituents in the coming weeks, but the government also will have to move past the bruising health accord negotiations to get the provinces on board.

Ottawa will need provinces on board for housing, child care pledges

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to reporters as he arrives for a weekend meeting of the national caucus on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Saturday, March 25, 2017. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Liberal MPs stuck around Ottawa on a rare Saturday to hammer out a plan to sell their recent budget to the public in the coming weeks, but the government also will have to move past the bruising experienced during the health accord negotiations to get the premiers on board.

To deliver on some of the touchstone pledges of their financial plan, including social housing and child care spaces, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau will need provincial and territorial support.

When asked if the federal-provincial relationship was marred by the Liberal's approach of making individual deals with the provinces on health, Morneau told CBC's The House the collaboration is never going to be simple.

"It's always going to be a challenge to work together because we're not going to have exactly the same view on every single issue," he said.

"They're working to provide really positive situations for people in their provinces; we're working towards the same goal."

Infrastructure, asylum seeker complaints 

Already some established irritants for the federal government have led to less-than-stellar reviews of the budget.

Quebec came out swinging on Wednesday, saying the Liberals failed to show that they would support several major infrastructure projects.

"We are extremely disappointed and concerned that there's no clear signal in this budget regarding the great infrastructure projects that are the rapid bus system in Quebec City, the Blue Line of the Montreal Metro and the electric train in Montreal," said Quebec Treasury Board President Pierre Moreau in a statement in French.

Quebec Treasury Board President Pierre Moreau, right, said the 39 Quebec MPs in the Liberal caucus should be speaking in favour of the three major infrastructure projects in Quebec and Montreal not mentioned in the budget. (Radio-Canada)

"If there's a failure, it's on the federal part. They should have been there... but they were not."

Heading into his second day of caucus meetings, Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi responded, saying he has a very strong relationship with Quebec ministers.

"We understand these are their priorities and those are the priorities of our government as well. And we are working closely with them," he said.

"I think Ottawa is the last place you want to have dictating local governments how they make their decisions."

'Praise of a kind' from Manitoba

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who still hasn't signed a health deal with the federal government, said he was "not displeased" by the budget's commitment to funding for Indigenous health but said he was disappointed with no additional money to deal with asylum seekers coming to his province.

"Talk of continuing previously announced programs is not recognition of the growing concerns I think many Canadians have about the need for better partnership to protect asylum seekers," he said.

Pallister has also repeatedly said he will not continue negotiations with Ottawa until he sees in writing that the threat to remove the $60 million earmarked for the Factory of the Future project is off the table.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leave the Prime Minister's office holding copies of the federal budget on Wednesday. (The Canadian Press / Sean Kilpatrick)

A spokesperson for the premier said most files between Ottawa and Manitoba are positive. But, "there are a few more challenging files like health and asylum seekers," wrote Olivia Baldwin-Valainis in an email.

"On health, we are making progress and look forward to getting back to the negotiating table once we have received formal, written confirmation that the unfortunate linkage to an economic and advanced manufacturing project has been withdrawn," she said.

Manitoba MP Jim Carr had an optimistic interpretation of Pallister's budget review.

"I hear he said — what were the words — 'not a bad budget.' So I would say that's praise of a kind," he said, heading into caucus.

Child-care agreements coming 

The budget provided more details about the government's previously announced $81.2-billion infrastructure plan, including $7 billion over 10 years to create new child-care spaces across the country. The government predicts there could be up to 40,000 new subsidized child-care spaces in the first three years of its national program.

Wednesday's budget included $7 billion over 10 years to create new child-care spaces. (Manitoba Theatre for Young People)

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos said Ottawa expects to sign bilateral agreements on child-care with the provinces and territories by the summer.

"Those conversations are now going faster and we look forward to further announcements," he said.

"This is a very collaborative exercise. All provinces and all territories are supportive of the principles that we believe to be important in investments in early learning and child care, principles of quality, principles of affordability, inclusiveness so that all children, wherever they may be, and however they may be living, have the same fair and equal chance of living well and doing well. And the same thing for parents." 

Caucus meeting

The two-day national caucus meeting was the first time all Liberal MPs have met together since more than 100 backbenchers turned against their cabinet colleagues and voted in favour of now-retired Liberal senator Jim Cowan's anti-genetic discrimination bill, a piece of legislation the prime minister himself said was unconstitutional.

On Saturday Trudeau said his caucus is more united than ever.

"One of the great strengths of the Liberal party is there is always a range of perspectives that allow us to represent the range of perspectives of Canadians."

Finance Minister Bill Morneau explains why his latest budget is only the second chapter of the Liberals' long-term approach to the economy. 16:13


Catharine Tunney is a reporter with CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked at CBC in Nova Scotia. She can be reached at catharine.tunney@cbc.ca or @cattunneyCBC.