Premiers running out of excuses for inaction

Every summer, the country’s premiers converge on some picturesque spot in Canada for their annual gathering. Last year it was Niagara-on-the-Lake. This year it’s Prince Edward Island. The backdrop changes as do some of the characters but the script, for the most part, remains the same.

Every summer, the country’s premiers converge on some picturesque spot in Canada for their annual gathering.

Last year it was Niagara-on-the-Lake. This year it’s Prince Edward Island. The backdrop changes as do some of the characters but the script, for the most part, remains the same.

Year in and year out the premiers usually find one or more apples of discord with the federal government of the day to chew on.

Some years they are unanimously aggrieved over some action of their federal partner. Last summer, it was Ottawa’s labour training scheme.

On other occasions, it is perceived federal inaction — as in the case this year of infrastructure spending — that is in their sights.

Over the past decade, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s lack of interest for convening first ministers’ conferences has been a recurring theme.

This is not to say that some of the concerns raised by the premiers are not real.

Their grievances over the initial federal labour training reform were serious enough. The proposition stood to cause more systemic problems than it would have solved. And a united provincial front did go some way to bring the federal government to the table.

But it also seems that when the premiers spend time in the same room, they conveniently forget that they are not, as a group, devoid of the power to do more than tear up their shirts in front of the cameras.

When repeatedly faced with what they collectively see as a federal leadership vacuum, it apparently does not cross their minds to fill it with more than empty words. By all indications, thinking outside the federal-provincial box does not come easily to this generation of premiers.

It is not that they are not equal partners with the federal government in the federation but that they don’t often act like they are.

Take the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

For the second year in a row, the premiers are set to wring their hands over Harper’s refusal to hold a public inquiry into what has become a national disgrace.

There is a point where provincial hand wringing comes perilously close to washing one’s hands of an issue. For the record, an inquiry does not have to be federal to be national. And in this instance, the scope of the issue is larger than the jurisdictional limits of any level of government. The provinces, together, have no lack of resources to put to the task of addressing it.

From one year to the next, there is always a political excuse to justify its institutional paralysis.

Last year, it was the fragile status of Ontario’s minority government under the untested leadership of Premier Kathleen Wynne coupled with the return to the table of a sovereigntist Quebec premier after an absence of a decade.

The latter always has a bit of a chilling effect on the other premiers.

To be fair, the past five years have featured an unprecedented amount of provincial turmoil, with the governing parties of Canada’s four big provinces all undergoing leadership changes. (Alberta is still at it.)

By contrast, last week’s gathering coincided with a return to the relative stability of majority governments in Central Canada and the advent of what is probably Quebec’s most federalist government in living memory.

If this is not the year when the premiers finally run out of excuses to not try to walk some of their talk, they might schedule more golf time and fewer press conferences at their next summer retreats.

Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.

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