Amid a hectic 2015 federal election campaign, the premier and I ended up at the same event and somehow found ourselves with a few minutes to chat away from the crowds.
I pointed out to Kathleen Wynne that she seemed to be campaigning more vigorously for her federal leader than any Ontario premier since Bill Davis stumped for Brian Mulroney more than 30 years ago.
I also pointed out it was a risky move, since Ontarians are notorious for favouring one party in Ottawa and a different one at Queen's Park. Wasn’t she concerned that if Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the election, voters would want to balance that out by choosing the Progressive Conservative in Ontario’s 2018 election?
“I can’t worry about that,” I recall her telling me. “The current relationship with Prime Minister Harper just doesn’t permit Ontario to make any progress on issues that are so important to this province. So I’m trying to do something about that. We need a federal partner.”
Of course, you know how it all turned out. Wynne barnstormed all over Ontario for Trudeau, who won the election, and a much more harmonious relationship between Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park seemed a sure thing.
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I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation over the past couple of weeks, as we've seen the first public signs of deterioration in the Trudeau-Wynne relationship. I haven’t wanted to read too much into any one incident of friction between the two Liberal leaders. These things are inevitable in the high-stakes, high-pressure atmosphere of politics. But the number of those incidents is increasing and the tone of the rhetoric, from Queen’s Park at least, has ratcheted up significantly — Wynne’s irritation with her federal cousins is starting to show.
“I wish we were more in conversation with the federal government,” Wynne said recently, in a speech to the Oakville Chamber of Commerce. “We need a partner that’s going to work with the evidence that shows there are increasing needs. And whether they step up to the plate or not, we have to provide those services.”
She was referring to mental health and long-term care services, both of which are already in short supply and expected to grow in demand.
Behind the scenes at the health accord negotiating table (the current agreement expires April 1), we’re hearing stories of increasingly heated confrontations between federal and provincial officials. The feds have seen Ontario hold the line on annual health-care spending increases, which have been limited to 2 per cent a year over the past few years. They’re offering somewhere between three and 3.5 per cent in annual increases, and wondering how the province can get away with asking for more than 5 per cent in federal increases, given that it isn't willing to increase its own spending that much.
Conversely, the province says that if the feds limit their increases to 3 or 3.5 per cent, they will be funding a smaller share of overall health-care costs than they used to. And with needs only increasing, Ontario can’t accept such a miserly transfer.
Of course, there are plenty of other factors exacerbating the tensions. After promising to run “modest deficits” of about $10 billion per year, the Trudeau government’s first budget deficit was triple that and shows no signs of getting smaller. So the notion of transferring billions more to Ontario when the federal books are so problematic isn’t too appealing to the federal finance department.
But the real irritant on the provincial side appears to be the fact that so many of Trudeau’s closest aides cut their teeth in politics as advisers to the previous Ontario Liberal government. Wynne’s team had high hopes that with their friends now in power in Ottawa, Canada’s most populous province might actually get some better consideration of its fiscal position in Confederation.
Ever since Bob Rae held government back in the early 1990s, successive premiers have decried the increasing gap between what Ontarians pay into the federal treasury and what they get back in federal public services. The Mowat Centre just released a study showing that gap is growing. Sadly for the current crew at Queen’s Park, where you stand on these issues often depends on where you sit. Their former allies are now sitting in the PMO, and obviously have a broader set of interests than they did when they worked at the Pink Palace.
Relations seem to be getting frostier by the day. While in Peterborough on his “listening tour” last week, Trudeau saw a woman reduced to tears, so distressed was she about the fact that her electricity rates were going through the roof. The first words out of Trudeau’s mouth were to thank the woman for sharing her extraordinary story. The second words: pointing out that “hydro bills are provincial.”
That’s true, but you can't say the PM threw the premier much of a lifeline there.
Which brings us back to that conversation I had with the premier back in 2015. Part of Wynne’s unique selling proposition to voters in 2018 will be that she’s the leader most likely to deliver the goods for Ontario, because she has the best relationship with this prime minister: same ideology, same party, personal friends, and lots of IOUs between them. But if recent events are any indication, the premier may be on the verge of losing that advantage. Can she publicly fight with Trudeau one day and then turn around and tell voters she's got an in with the federal government the next?
Wynne’s relationship with Harper was toxic — at one point, they didn’t meet for more than a year. Watching her and Trudeau get along so well when Trudeau first came to power was, to many, a refreshing sign that this Canadian federation can work well when both levels of government are on the same page.
But observers might not be nuts to ask why it makes sense for a politician whose approval ratings are hovering around 13 per cent to start picking increasingly public fights with a counterpart who’s still remarkably popular, in spite of some notable screw ups. They might say: "Premier, we understand why you couldn’t get along with Harper. But you can’t get along with Trudeau? And if you can’t, maybe no one can" — thereby eliminating one of the few remaining reasons Ontarians might have to vote Liberal in the next election.