This Week’s First Ministers’ Meeting Marks A Turn in Trudeau’s Dialogue with the Premiers

This Week’s First Ministers’ Meeting Marks A Turn in Trudeau’s Dialogue with the Premiers

John Delacourt

Canada’s Premiers gathered in Ottawa this week but the tone was very different than their first meeting in 2015. Our John Delacourt on a changing perception of government and working effectively with Canada’s Premiers.

In November of 2015, in the early days of this government, one of the significant gestures Trudeau made was to convene a First Ministers meeting, prior to the COP 21 meeting in Paris, to work on a concerted effort to address climate change. There was nothing agreed upon at that time, other than a resolution to meet again 90 days after the Paris meeting, yet it was less about decision making than it was about a new dialogue, a new tone, a new way of working together.

Indeed it had been six years since the Premiers had last met in this fashion. Harper never really warmed to the idea of convening these working sessions; it took the recession to create the suitable conditions for a hanging to concentrate his mind. A little more than half a decade later Trudeau, with a buoyant economy and a spring in his stride, walked into that first meeting intent upon establishing a strong working rapport and a commitment to meeting again soon – and often.

At this week’s First Ministers’ Meeting here in Ottawa, it is clear that collegiality is no longer the high priority it once was, given the challenges looming for a government in mid-mandate. Chief among them is bringing revenue in to the coffers. In the first day of the Ministers’ sitting down this week, Trudeau called upon Bill Blair, the former Toronto Police Services Chief and current Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Justice, to deliver the sobering news that the federal government will be proposing a ten percent tax on the recreational use of marijuana.

If there had been sufficient indication this was coming, the Premiers’ reactions suggested otherwise.

You can understand why many of the Premiers felt blind sided and reacted so negatively. One of the fundamental tenets of the government’s rationale to legalize marijuana is that, by providing a regulated, safe and lower cost alternative to the product currently sold illegally, they will drive the criminals out of business. It will be harder to make the lower cost argument when the combined provincial and federal tax on each product sold could be 25 percent.

And even more concerning to many, is the inequitable sharing of the work with regard to the enforcement of regulations, the policing and the changes to laws and bylaws that has to occur. Yet Trudeau, in his follow-up interviews this week, gave no indication that the federal government was prepared to back down from Blair’s presentation.

On its own, it might be overlooked, but given the fallout of liberal members of the Status of Women parliamentary committee flatly walking out and rejecting the decision to elect a Conservative Chair, and in the continuing saga of Morneau’s proposed tax changes facing a revolt from everyone from small business owners to doctors, a new perception is emerging. This new perception paints the picture of a government less receptive than resolute and less sunny than stern.

As the Liberal Government turns its focus to managing the complex, harder work of delivering a fall fiscal update and budget that stays the course for continued growth into the early months of the next campaign, surely Trudeau’s team can recall how tone can direct dialogue, and that picking a fight with the Premiers didn’t work out well for the last Prime Minister.

A former director of communications for the Liberal Research Bureau, John Delacourt is Vice President of Ensight.