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With a New PM, a New Shot at Deeper Federal-Provincial Ties

As the former Premier of Prince Edward Island, from 2007 to 2015, Robert Ghiz was known for his achievements when it came to education, health care, and growing the economy. In addition to his role as Premier, he served as Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs, Minister responsible for Acadian and Francophone Affairs, and Minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs. His presentations provide insights into the Canadian political system, public sector leadership, and topics ranging from education to health care and the economy. In this recent column for The Globe and Mail, Mr. Ghiz looks at the Trudeau government’s cabinet and the federal-provincial relationship:

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a press conference immediately after the election, I was mildly taken aback by the media reaction. Did we really go so far down a controlling path that ready access to a politician is now considered revolutionary?

I have had a long-standing grievance with the lack of public dialogue between the elected leadership of our country. But I am now hopeful that the barriers to real collaboration and productive discussion among first ministers are finally breaking down.

During my time as premier, there were only two first ministers’ meetings. One meeting place shortly after the global economic meltdown in 2008. There was deep concern everywhere – and former prime minister Stephen Harper proposed massive infrastructure spending. Well, that was not a difficult issue for the premiers of the day.

And while that arrangement brought short-term benefits to the struggling economies of our respective jurisdictions, that discussion did not address some of the fundamental issues facing Canada. Furthermore, the decision to invest in infrastructure only accelerated existing plans – and there was no long-term vision for when those dollars ran out. In other words, nation building was not a factor.

But now, the opportunity for a truly national vision has arrived. And with respect to all those First Ministers who are now sitting around the table, a strictly prioritized discussion needs to be undertaken:

Climate change: Clearly, this was neglected by the previous administration. Now there is the potential for Ottawa to maximize the tremendous work that is being done individually in the provinces to develop a national plan. It is gratifying that Mr. Trudeau has chosen to invite the premiers and others to the international climate-change conference in Paris to start this process.

Health care: This is the next logical focus – with an emphasis on seniors’ care and dealing with our aging population. The provinces have done a lot a good work in this area over the last number of years, and the active voice of a federal partner will unveil new opportunities. This issue is especially important, given that the Liberal election platform reflects ongoing provincial efforts in terms of home care, long-term care and more affordable housing.

Infrastructure: This is an opportunity for the federal government to weave together the imperatives of job creation, innovation, infrastructure renewal and economic activity. As in 2008, this should be an area where agreement will come quickly, given a Liberal platform that called for more investment. One piece of advice is to make any new dollars as flexible as possible, because each jurisdiction will have different priorities. This new program should also take a longer-term view of our national prospects and ambitions.

First Nations: A meeting between national aboriginal leaders and the Prime Minister is vital. In part, this will help to underline the existing provincial support for an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women. In recent years, the premiers filled the gap left by the previous federal government and had devoted a day at the annual premiers’ meetings to aboriginal issues. While most of this matter falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government, the premiers were consistently there to listen – and offer support.

We need full, public and focused discussions that involve all our first ministers and that can be translated into real action. As part of that process, a strong first minister should also rely on the strengths of his or her cabinet members, and provide them with the latitude to act. So it is satisfying that Mr. Trudeau said his cabinet would be made up of “deciders,” not mere expressions of central control.

I believe that we do have challenges in our country, and that governments have an obligation to fully discuss all possible solutions. Furthermore, I believe the leadership among Canada’s first ministers is up to that challenge.

Yes, there may be some intergovernmental wrangling – but, like press conferences with the Prime Minister, it’s hardly revolutionary.

Robert Ghiz/The Globe and Mail/November, 2015