Walkout threat proves Ford’s inexperience

The last first ministers conference of Justin Trudeau’s current term in office was the most acrimonious.

The imminence of a federal and an Alberta election certainly contributed to the tensions. But those tensions will outlast next year’s federal and provincial votes.

Not all the lines that divided the premiers on Friday are drawn in the relatively shallow ground of electoral sand.

Whoever is prime minister a year from now will find the same irreconcilable provincial differences on carbon pricing and pipelines.

Some of those differences find Ontario’s Doug Ford and Quebec’s Francois Legault on different sides.

The two Central Canada premiers made simultaneous maiden appearances on the first ministers’ stage on Friday in Montreal.

Here are some early observations as to how they fit in the current federal-provincial dynamics and what their presence at the table may bode for a tumultuous future.

Among the participants at the gathering, Ford brought the least experience in provincial politics and it showed.

By threatening to walk out over agenda differences with the prime minister, he may have hoped to lead a larger boycott of the event.

But he found little support for a walkout among colleagues.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister — a fellow Tory — spoke for the others when he said on his way in that he had not come all the way to Montreal to bail out at the first opportunity.

It is not that premiers have not walked out or boycotted first ministers’ conferences in the past. But it was almost always to underline a grievance that had their province up in arms.

After the Meech Lake accord failed in 1990, Quebec stayed away from federal-provincial meetings, including first ministers conferences for the better part of two years.

In 2004, Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams left the table then presided over by Paul Martin over a quarrel about the equalization formula.

By comparison, Ford lacked a substantial motive — beyond partisan petulance — to justify his threat.

There is a reason why most premiers have not over the years found the walkout option to be attractive and why no Ontario government leader had threatened a boycott in the past.

Day in and day out, the prime minister, by the sheer virtue of his position, commands the national stage. By comparison, it is not often that a premier gets the opportunity to take on the federal government in front of a pan-Canadian audience.

Former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Clyde Wells, who emerged as a key player in the mobilization of public opinion against the Meech Lake constitutional accord in the late eighties, certainly made the most of the national exposure those conferences afforded him.

As she looks to her upcoming re-election campaign, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is similarly putting her time in the spotlight to maximum use these days.

At these gatherings, Ontario is in a league of its own in terms of the influence it yields on national affairs.

On that basis, Ford’s predecessors rightly felt that it was immensely more productive to throw their weight around at the table than to throw a tantrum for the cameras outside the room. But then they did not amalgamate their role as leader of Canada’s most-populous province with that of federal leader of the opposition.

As he looks to the next three years of his current term in office, Ford may want to ponder the risks of trading Ontario’s historical role as a major provincial anchor and the leadership that used to attend it for that of loose cannon.

There is, after all, a possibility that Trudeau will be around for as long or longer than the time he heads the Ontario government.

Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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