VANCOUVER — Whatever happened to those first ministers’ conferences, so entertaining for their fed-bashing and back-biting by provincial premiers?
Under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chretien, the prime minister, premiers and territorial leaders would face off about medicare, social assistance financing or patriation and reform of Canada’s Constitution.
Aboriginal groups would get into the act, expressing outrage at their habitual exclusion.
And the various participants sporadically would appear before microphones to spew invective that would make for pretty good headlines.
Such controversial gabfests around huge boardroom tables have become part of a bygone era, eschewed by a Conservative prime minister cunningly determined to avoid the bad press that inevitably emanated from those closed-door discussions.
Stephen Harper is quite willing to meet premiers one at a time, even to accompany them to their children’s hockey games — as he did last winter, sitting alongside Christy Clark at a Vancouver ice rink.
But confronting a horde of provincial leaders? Not Harper’s style.
Still, the federal-provincial show must go on in a decentralized federation like Canada.
And so, "the federal government and the provinces are finding new ways of working together," according to a June publication by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Harper’s former communications director Geoff Norquay sheds considerable light on the newfangled interplay in an article for the institute’s Policy Options magazine.
It’s part of a process he calls "networked federalism."
"Issues are no longer being worked out at high profile First Ministers Conferences but at the lower levels of cabinet and agency responsibility."
Under networked federalism, the provinces and Ottawa stick to their own constitutional jurisdictions.
So, on health care — delivery of which is a provincial responsibility — Finance Minister Jim Flaherty last December offered a take-it-or-leave-it funding package to the premiers in a process entirely devoid of negotiation.
The provinces are being left to craft among themselves any health care reforms necessitated by the limitation in federal funding, which is what they’ve begun doing in a series of meetings this summer.
It’s not just the process that’s been overhauled. Norquay explains the agenda for federal-provincial relations also has shifted — away from health care and other social issues to more economic preoccupations.
The Harper government’s "jobs and growth" strategy is forcing a rethink of policies specifically related to Canada’s labour market.
Norquay, now a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, cites three policy areas he expects Ottawa and the provinces to focus on in the next while.
• A "woefully outdated Employment Insurance system." EI, Norquay explains, is a federal program that affects provinces differently, with westerners heavily subsidizing easterners. In Newfoundland, P.E.I. and New Brunswick, for example, pretty near 100 per cent of jobless people receive EI benefits, while in B.C. only 41 per cent qualify.
• "Selfish and self serving" provincial rules governing workplace credentials for new-comers holding foreign qualifications. Provinces regulate qualifications and professional licensing. But, asserts Norquay, they "are in the thrall of their professions and the result is pure and simple protectionism ... It’s stupid and we all pay the costs for this nonsense."
• Immigration, which used to be geared to family reunification. Norquay notes, "now the focus is moving quickly to meeting Canada’s labour force requirements."
By having bureaucrats and cabinet officials handle any federal-provincial co-ordination, the reform procedure is more subterranean, protecting the Harper Conservatives from any blowback they might have encountered with boardroom-style talks by politicians.
The new format is effective in nurturing an atmosphere of political calm, not so good in terms of engendering public awareness and debate.
» Barbara Yaffe is a national affairs columnist for the Vancouver Sun.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 25, 2012