Politics

Scheer promises to maintain annual health transfer increases in anticipation of Trudeau attacks

Andrew Scheer promises to increase health and social transfer payments by at least three per cent every year should he become prime minister, he says, to extinguish fears the Conservative leader has a hidden agenda to cut critical services.

Conservative leader makes committment as Justin Trudeau evokes cuts in Doug Ford's Ontario

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is promising he will increase health and social transfer payments by at least three per cent every year if elected prime minister. Scheer made the pledge at a hospital in Toronto on Friday and in a letter to the premiers. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Andrew Scheer promises to increase health and social transfer payments by at least three per cent every year should he become prime minister, he says, to extinguish fears the Conservative leader has a hidden agenda to cut critical services.

"That is why today I am putting that commitment in writing for all Canadians," Scheer said at a hospital in Toronto on Friday. "I have signed my health and social guarantee."

In a letter to provincial and territorial premiers released Thursday, Scheer said he wants to spell out his commitment in writing because he anticipates his opponents will misrepresent his position on health-care funding once next month's federal election campaign gets underway.

"I want you to have my word in writing that I will maintain and increase that funding," he wrote.

Millions of Canadians rely on the public health-care system, be it for mundane checkups or more momentous life events like the birth of a child, life-saving treatments and caring for aging parents, said Scheer, whose party has been branded with a reputation for embracing austerity at the expense of social programs.

Canadians count on education, social assistance, early learning, child care and other programs supported by the Canada Social Transfer, and Canadians need to be able to count on stable and predictable federal dollars, he added.

"Stable federal funding is important to ensure a quality public health-care system in your province."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already started evoking the name of Ontario Premier Doug Ford, accusing Conservatives of being "for the people" on the campaign trail, but quickly turning to "cuts" to services once elected. "For the People" was Ford's election campaign slogan.

"We all know too well what happens once they're in office," Trudeau told candidates at a pre-campaign event Wednesday. "We've seen repeatedly just how far they're willing to go to help the wealthiest few."

'Commitment down in writing'

In Ontario, Ford's government has been dogged by public outrage over a raft of unpopular policy changes, including increased class sizes, deep cuts to legal aid spending and less money for autism programs. Last week, it announced a new needs-based program for autistic children after months of backlash from angry parents.

Asked whether Scheer's commitment was aimed at neutralizing the comparison with Ford, spokesperson Simon Jefferies would only say that health is an issue that stretches across all provinces and territories.

"We know that the Trudeau Liberals are going to try and fearmonger and misrepresent our position, so we thought it was important to put our commitment down in writing to all premiers," Jefferies said.

Scheer dodged questions from reporters about this as well Friday.

"I believe that Justin Trudeau would like to run this next election against anybody except for me," Scheer said. "He's constantly looking for other people to attack, to distract Canadians from other issues."

"This election is about Justin Trudeau or myself."

Liberals and NDP still see cuts

Finance Minister Bill Morneau hit back with a letter of his own. Morneau said Scheer's announcement wasn't a commitment to maintain funding but a veiled cut. Morneau said the opposition leader did not commit to upholding the current health accord on top of the existing health transfers, which together offers increases in health-care spending by 4.1 per cent in 2021-22.

Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor echoed Morneau's comments on a teleconference call with reporters Friday afternoon. She said the Liberals estimate under Scheer's plan the Conservatives would cut $3 billion from health care over the next two years.

"In effect, while saying he is providing certainty to provinces and territories, he has, in fact, created uncertainty," Petitpas Taylor said.

She also said Scheer dodged the opportunity to distance himself from Ford's Ontario cuts and to tell voters why the federal Conservatives are different.

"We've seen this gimmick before," Petitpas Taylor said. "Doug Ford made the same empty promises before."

NDP health critic Don Davies said no one seriously expects to see a Scheer government enhance health care in Canada.

Health-care costs increase by more than three per cent a year, yet neither the previous Conservative government nor the current Liberal one have managed to ensure federal transfers keep up, Davies said.

Scheer responded in a tweet Friday afternoon saying the Conservatives would maintain the current funding formula and agreements with provinces and territories under the health accord.

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With files from CBC News

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