The premiers have new power — what will they do with it?

Canada’s premiers are meeting in Toronto ahead of the return of Parliament. Will the provincial and territorial leaders be able use the challenges facing a federal minority government to their advantage and extract more money from Ottawa?

Newsletter: Premiers set to meet in Toronto before MPs return to Ottawa

Canada's Premiers are set to meet in Toronto on Monday, December 2, 2019. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

This article is part of the Minority Report newsletter, which is your weekly tip-sheet from CBC News to help you navigate the parliamentary waters of a minority governmentSign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

I was getting ready to interview Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister late last week, but there were technical problems. Normally, those induce mini heart attacks for me (I have 30-40 a day), but not this time.

The delay allowed me to witness something I would have bet big money a year ago would never happen. There was a man, on TV, speaking to reporters, saying stuff like:

"We have to listen to people out West and listen to their concerns."

"I mentioned that to the prime minister as well, and he agrees, he wants to support everyone right across the country. And I'm going to support the prime minister."

I can guarantee if this were even two months ago, most would not have guessed the man on TV talking like he's Justin Trudeau's BFF was Ontario Premier Doug Ford. But it was.

Ford — the peacemaker, the national unifier — will host a meeting tomorrow of premiers from across the country in Toronto. His buddy the prime minister won't be there, but the meeting marks a very significant political moment, given current political realities. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with the Ontario Premier Doug Ford at his office in the West Block of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

First, the governing Liberals were shut out of Alberta and Saskatchewan in the October election. That electoral showing prompted the premiers of those provinces to issue a list of demands they want the federal government to meet. Second, because the Liberals will now govern with a minority, the premiers have more power than they usually do.

Not long after the federal election I interviewed former Quebec premier Jean Charest. He is familiar with minority governments — having led one — and insists they can be more productive than majority governments. When I asked him how premiers fare when the federal governing party rules with a minority of seats; his eyes twinkled; I swear. 

He said: "The government will have to govern not only with the other parties, but the premiers. And the premiers will play a bigger role, and Canadians like that, and you know what, in the federal system of government, all of that makes sense."

So if the premiers now have more power, the question becomes: how will they use it? 

Power & Politics will be live from the premiers' meeting in Toronto on Monday at 5:00 p.m. ET on CBC News Network. (CBC)

There are already some strong signals being sent out that they'll flex their muscles to demand more funding for both health care and equalization. The key to capitalizing on the increase in their influence is to find issues they can agree on and form a united front when they bring those ideas to the federal government. 

Health care sticks out because everyone wants mo' money. Premiers specifically want money for pharmacare (if it happens) and they want the amount of money Ottawa sends provinces through the Canada Health Transfer to increase by more each year than it does right now.

When it comes to equalization, the program that sees federal dollars directed into poorer provinces so they can offer the same quality of services as wealthier provinces, the calls for amending the formula are back again (yes, you have déjà vu). This time, that call is being driven by the economic struggles in Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

The chances of the formula changing, though, are about as high as the chances of me not eating carbs over Christmas — it ain't gonna happen. 

The Prime Minister's Office doesn't want to lead the charge. They kinda made it clear in their readout of the meeting between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe; that any proposed changes to equalization would have to come from the premiers themselves. "The prime minister suggested that Premier Moe, in his capacity as Chair of the Council of the Federation, work with all of his fellow premiers to gain consensus on potential changes to the formula." 

Getting all the premiers on the same page will be difficult, after all, would premiers that see billions of dollars flow to their provinces through equalization really say yes to giving some of that up? 

Instead, as both Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball signalled this week, help for provinces that need it will not likely come from equalization but rather will come from the fiscal stabilization program -- which could be reconfigured to offer more than just $60 per person annually to a province struggling through tough economic times.

So those are two material asks that could emerge from the meeting, but will the feds comply? Would federal movement on those issues even help soothe the divisions between Canada's regions? Will Doug Ford unite us all? The short answer to all these questions is, I don't know. But I'd even give up carbs over Christmas to be a fly on the wall during that meeting tomorrow to find out. 

This is just one part of the Minority Report newsletter. In this week's issue Éric Grenier looks at a poll that examines how a leader's faith impacts their support amongst voters. Plus, the Power Panel gives its advice on what the parties should be doing in the week ahead and we profile the new Green MP from Fredericton. To read all of that and more sign up for the newsletter here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox every Sunday.

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