Opinion: B.C.’s premier thought he’d made progress with Ottawa on health-care funding. Until the federal Liberals went on the attack this week
VICTORIA — This was the week when Premier John Horgan discovered the true nature of his relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The eye-opening process began with a Sunday morning telephone call to Horgan from federal Intergovernmental Relations Minister Dominic LeBlanc.
LeBlanc wanted an update on the pending gathering in Victoria of the Canadian premiers.
Horgan, the chair of the council of the federation, was taken aback.
The lead topic for the premiers was the need for the federal government to increase its share of funding for health care.
The premiers, under Horgan’s leadership, had been trying for months to persuade Ottawa to convene a federal-provincial conference on that very topic.
Now at the last minute, the federal minister was calling for an update on something his government had refused to address.
Horgan gave what he later described as a “candid” response to a “disingenuous” outreach on the eve of the conference.
“What could be more important for the intergovernmental relations minister than to relate with the other governments of Canada?” sneered the premier. “Is there anything else on his docket beyond the 13 of us? I wouldn’t think so.”
The phone call was the first move in a federal strategy to undercut Horgan and the premiers.
Monday the intergovernmental relations minister went on CBC Newsworld to blast the premiers for claiming the federal government was funding only 22 per cent of health care.
“They use this fake figure of 22 per cent,” fumed LeBlanc, whose ministerial specialty is clearly not intergovernmental diplomacy. “The federal spending to support public health care is about a third.”
Not much of a comeback: Even if you accept his math, it still means that the provinces are putting up two dollars for every one contributed by Ottawa.
The Trudeau cabinet was just getting warmed up.
On Tuesday, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos went on the national broadcaster to further challenge the provinces.
One-upping LeBlanc, he said that the federal contribution was more like 40 per cent, counting the value of the taxing power that Ottawa transferred to the provinces back in the 1970s.
Which is higher than the 35 per cent the provinces are asking for today, said Duclos, underscoring the irony.
But the debate over percentages was “sterile” and not one that the federal government wanted to engage in, said Duclos.
As for a federal provincial summit on health care, Duclos had some preconditions.
The first meeting should be between federal and provincial health ministers. It would be up to them to agree “on what type of results we want to achieve together before we speak of the dollars needed to achieve those results.”
Only then, he suggested, would the way be clear for the prime minister to sit down with the premiers.
As all this sank in — the perfunctory phone call, the one-two punch by the federal ministers delivered on national television — John Horgan’s usually upbeat demeanour gave way to a mixture of anger and frustration.
The federal government was refusing to meet. It was bargaining through the news media. It was treating the provinces like “serfs.”
“The federal government is not a superior order of government,” said the B.C. premier. “It’s an equal order of government, and we’ll take no lessons from the federal government in fiscal probity.”
See, Horgan thought he’d got somewhere with the prime minister.
Hardly ever during his five years as premier has he criticized the Trudeau government.
In return, he thought he’d developed a healthy relationship based on mutual benefit for the province and the country.
This time last year, he and Trudeau sat down at the White Spot in Coquitlam in for a bag lunch photo op that went national.
But it was more than a photo op: That week the two governments announced agreement on $350 million in federal funding for child care and $1.3 billion for Surrey-Langley SkyTrain extension.
Both announcements were key to shoring up support for Trudeau’s party in advance of the fall federal election.
Following the election, Horgan thought he’d made progress on the quest for increased health-care funding as well.
“I sat down with the prime minister last November and I had just come out of surgery,” Horgan recounted.
“I was facing 35 rounds of radiation treatment for throat cancer, and I was vulnerable as a human being and as a premier.
“The prime minister and I had a candid and frank discussion about the importance of making sure that as we go forward, we’re working together to address the challenges of patients and those that are accessing our health care system.
“The prime minister gave a commitment to me that he would task his ministers to meet with us and we as a group agreed that we would look at a diverse group of premiers.”
The premiers sent along a list of proposals to Ottawa that they hoped to pursue jointly. The exercise faltered.
“We got zero back,” Horgan told reporters. “We can’t negotiate with ourselves.”
Yet that is where the premiers found themselves, in Horgan’s final turn as chair of the premier’s conference.
Looking back Tuesday, he reflected on happier days when the premiers and prime minister worked together during the pandemic.
“Where did the love go?” asked Horgan in a moment of pathos, echoing a familiar pop song from the 1960s.
But it was never love, just political self-interest and right now, there’s nothing in it for Ottawa.