Premiers rarely get much attention or traction when they meet every year to save the country from itself.
This week may be different, because the premiers have seen the enemy — and it is no longer just ourselves. Now there’s Donald Trump.
The U.S. president has given the premiers new purpose. The release of his updated NAFTA negotiating agenda Monday is focussing provincial minds on a bigger target south of the border.
Meeting in Edmonton on Tuesday and Wednesday, the premiers will have better things to do than bash Ottawa as they customarily do. Reborn and rebranded as the portentous Council of the Federation in 2003, the annual premiers’ conference has long served as a counterweight to Ottawa.
But a counterweight can also be deadweight, not heft. These days, the premiers have no real role as a countervailing force against a forceful federal government, for it is the threat of countervailing duties on Canadian softwood lumber, and the spectre of Buy America programs, that weighs heavier on the country.
No longer rebels without a cause, the premiers are making common cause in forging and reinforcing links with American governors. Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne showed up at a meeting of U.S. governors in Rhode Island last week, making the case that Ontario is the best or second-best customer for two-thirds of American states.
Wynne has been courting her counterparts since becoming premier — among them Indiana’s then-governor, Mike Pence, on his 2014 trip to Toronto. Now Trump’s vice-president, Pence spoke to his erstwhile gubernatorial colleagues at their summit last week with Wynne in attendance, doubtless mindful of the trade links he championed when he led that Indiana trade delegation to Ontario.
This week in Edmonton, Wynne will brief her fellow premiers on all those bilateral talks with American governors. Yet the premiers are acutely aware that in the high stakes NAFTA negotiations ahead, they remain bit players limited to lobbying from the sidelines and telephone lines as American decision makers take their seats at the bargaining table.
That’s why the provinces cannot allow fears over free trade to crowd out other agenda items where they have a central role to play. For while they are constrained from making the final decisions on trade, they are the frontline decision makers in other areas that matter just as much to Canadians.
At last year’s meeting in Yukon, they were able to celebrate the signal achievement of an expanded Canada Pension Plan. Wynne forced retirement security onto the agenda with her proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan, which set a mid-2016 deadline for a decision before the province went its own way. The Trudeau Liberals leveraged that timeline to win a historic compromise from the other provinces, obviating the need for an Ontario-only pension.
Now, Wynne has the opportunity to push the envelope further yet again, this time with her proposed pharmacare plan set to take effect next January for people up to age 25. Ontario has been pushing for a national pharmacare plan for years, arguing not only for social equity and decency, but fiscal efficiency and raw purchasing power.
All the benefits that accrue to the provincial treasury from a single-payer drug plan can generate even greater economies of scale with full national implementation. Beyond the humanity of ensuring that patients can fill their doctors’ prescriptions without worrying about where the money will come from — especially in an era of precarious employment and the uncertainty of workplace benefit plans — a national program covering all age groups would generate huge savings from bulk buying of pharmaceuticals for which we now overpay.
Just as they updated the CPP last year, 60 years after its inception, our leaders must modernize universal medicare by adding free medicine to the universal coverage first conceived six decades ago. The onus is on Ottawa to support free prescription drugs for all, but there is an opportunity for provincial premiers to lead the way today, just as they once did on pensions and medicare.
Protectionist barriers to trade at home and abroad are worth tackling, to the extent that our politicians can win friends and influence governors. But persistent barriers to medicare and medicine closer to home cannot be forsaken in Edmonton, or the premiers’ work will soon be forgotten.
Martin Regg Cohn’s political column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. email@example.com , Twitter: @reggcohn