The House

Liberals deliver ultimatum to provinces on health deal

This week on The House, is the federal government close to reaching a deal over health dollars with the provinces? We ask federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Health Minister Jane Philpott and Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau is pushing for (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Finance Minister Bill Morneau says his government is willing to give provinces more money for home care and mental health services than originally promised — and annualize it —  but only if they all come to an agreement on Monday. 

"If we can get to an agreement that includes measurable outcomes, better home care situations for Canadians, better mental health possibilities for Canadians, we will invest more. But if we don't, because provinces don't get on that page, we will stick to our campaign promises," he told the CBC's Chris Hall.

Finance and health ministers from the provinces and territories are travelling to Ottawa over the weekend for meetings.

"Monday is our day to discuss this," reiterated Morneau on The House.

The Liberals have long said they'll stick with the annual three per cent annual transfer set to kick in next spring, a drop from the six per cent the provinces had been receiving since 2004. Justin Trudeau campaigned on a promise to give $3-billion over four years to go towards home care and an unspecified amount on improving mental health.

The provinces and territories have been fighting for a larger annual increase. Earlier this week, Ontario proposed a new 10-year federal funding plan that would see Ottawa's health transfers to the provinces rise by 5.2 per cent a year.

Morneau wouldn't say how much more the Liberals are willing to hand over, just that it's a "significant" amount.

"We're explicitly not talking about percentages," he said. "The kinds of dollars that have been floated by the provinces are outside the realm of what we are able to consider given our fiscal outcomes that we want to put in place for Canadians. We have an economy that we need to watch."

Morneau said he's already called the provinces to explain what the federal government is willing to do. Earlier this week the health ministers were threatening to skip out on Monday's discussions if they didn't see a willingness from the government to explore new proposals.

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty says his province is waiting to hear more about the extra money before signing on. (CBC)

"We go into this with good intent," Morneau said. "There are different parties at the table with different interests."

Saskatchewan's finance minister says he's waiting to see what the extra money looks like before signing on.

Kevin Doherty said his province would be open to accepting Morneau's offer if the extra funding mirrored the suggestion Ontario put on the table.

"If it comes to the 5.2 per cent, we are absolutely interested in it. We want to see the specifics that the federal government is attaching to these additional dollars," he told Hall.

"The fact of the matter is, this is a discussion. It's just not productive to sit there and say, 'Here is the bottom line, take it or leave it, so to speak," he said. "We'll want to see what those details are."

Minister of Health Jane Philpott listens to a reporter's question as she leaves a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Dec 14, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Morneau's colleague at the table, Health Minister Jane Philpott, says she's "very optimistic" Ottawa can strike a deal with the provinces about a new health transfer deal before year's end, fulfilling an earlier promise.  

"There's a tremendous enthusiasm on the part of provinces and territories to come to some agreement or at least an agreement on principle," Jane Philpott told The House.

Despite the heel digging leading up to Monday's talks, Philpott believes there's traction on the mental health file.

"They've actually said to us, 'We could use some health in this area... I'm hearing people crying out for access to better access to mental health care and services," she said.

"It's one of the things that inhibits people from being able to fully enjoy life as they ought to and if we can support the provinces and territories in that I will be very happy."

Get ready for pot surprises 

Anne McLellan (CBC)

As the Liberal government moves towards legalizing marijuana, the chair of a task-force asked to look into those ramifications is urging flexibility.

Former federal health minister Anne McLellan said surprises are bound to pop up as Canada trends in unknown waters.

For example, she said Colorado underestimated how popular edibles would be with consumers than smoked products and had to reintroduce packaging legislation.

"We will have surprises. They will be our own surprises and what we want to do,  and what we made very plain in the report, is that we want governments at all levels to be sufficiently flexible," she said.

"That they are able to go back in, quickly as Colorado did, and recalibrate their system to deal with the surprise."

One of the more controversial headlines to come out of the report was the recommendations to restrict sales to people under the age of 18, despite medical warnings that the brain is still developing them.

McLellan defended the recommendation, arguing higher age limits would simply drive young consumers into the hands of the black market.

"We are not naive... the illicit market has an uncanny ability to find a place regardless of what government regulations or law enforcement does," she said. "We would definitely expect that a legalized, regulated regime you will take a significant part of the illicit market out of this area."

Cash-for-access: 'Everything changed'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves after holding a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Monday, Dec. 12, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The so-called cash-for-access controversy following the Liberals reared its head again this week when Canada's ethics watchdog said she wants to question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about his attendance at certain fundraising events.

The file has filled minutes in Question Period and at news conferences, prompting many to wonder why the Liberals are willing to risk the appearance of wrongdoing for money.

"I don't think you can say there is clearly an appearance," said Eglinton-Lawrence Liberal  MP Marco Mendicino.

"You have to look at all the government activity on this and of course we don't just meet with stakeholders in the context of fundraising we meet with many other stakeholders and many other Canadians who don't contribute to the Liberal Party or to any political party."

But our In House panelists believe this week's news will be hard for the Liberals to weather.

"This is significant. It is very rare for a sitting prime minister to be questioned by the ethics commissioner," said The Globe and Mail's Laura Stone.

"This is the last topic before winter break. This is how they closed it. People will remember that."

Earlier this week the prime minister also admitted that government and policies sometimes come up in conversation at these fundraisers, but he doesn't base his decisions on those talks. 

"Everything changed when the prime minister just switched the story," said Maclean's John Geddes.

"The Liberals have been saying for weeks , 'Oh we don't talk about serious policies or government business at these things.' Lots of journalists were told that and then the prime minister pulled the rug out from under that story."