OTTAWA — Few would disagree that living through a global pandemic for the past 16 months has been draining.
That no doubt includes the country’s premiers, who were repeatedly forced to make tough calls on closing schools and shuttering large swaths of the economy to curb the spread of COVID-19 and preserve hospital capacity in their provinces and territories.
So with speculation simmering that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may trigger an election before long, how much fight do those who usually have a bone to pick with Ottawa have left?
“Everybody is looking for a change, but nobody has the energy to start the movement,” said Alise Mills, a Conservative strategist and senior counsel with Sussex Strategy Group.
“Every premier in this country has got a few scars and battle wounds, and some are bleeding heavier than others and know that the focus has to be on holding their ground and winning back what they’ve lost during the pandemic.”
The currentlandscape appears to be a far cry from two years ago when Conservative premiers joined forces over their opposition to the Trudeau government’s carbon pricing efforts.
They unanimously criticized the Liberal plan to impose a charge on fuel in provinces that either refused to introduce a carbon-pricing plan of their own or implemented one that didn’t meet with federal approval.
The political fight against the carbon tax was coupled with concerns from Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and then newly-elected United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney in Alberta about the federal Liberal’s regulatory approach to energy policies, which they said would hurt growth in the oil and gas and other resource sectors.
Signs of the fight Trudeau had on his hands going into the October 2019 election came to vivid life at the Calgary Stampede that July when Kenney invited Moe, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs and former Northwest Territories leader Bob McLeod for a summit of “like-minded premiers.”
Daniel Beland, a political-science professor at McGill University, says Ford and Kenney — the two most prominent figures in the group of Conservative premiers — have damaged their images through their handling of the COVID-19 crisis and are now among the least popular provincial leaders.
“They didn’t manage the pandemic well, at least that’s how the population perceives it,” said Beland.
Another issue is the question of what motivates premiers to rally together against Trudeau like the fight against the carbon tax did, since that battle has largely been settled.
The Supreme Court of Canada earlier this year upheld the federal government’s approach, and even federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has since embraced carbon pricing.
“What is really that unifying issue that unifies all the premiers across the board. I’m not sure there is one,” said Shakir Chambers, political strategist and principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group.
“Even on international travel, you have someone like Jason Kenney that’s pretty much saying, ‘open up the borders,’ but then you have Doug Ford that’s saying, ‘you know what, not just yet.'”
One outstanding demand all premiers seem to agree on is a push for Ottawa to give provinces billions more in health transfers.
The leaders say the federal government’s payments only cover 22 per cent of the actual cost of delivering health care. They want to see that share boosted to 35 per cent, which would provide an extra $28 billion a year.
Kenney is also focused on the issue of federal equalization payments and is set to ask Albertans to weigh in on the matter in a referendum to be held later this year.
The referendum question, to be posed as Albertans cast ballots in municipal elections in October, will ask whether the section of the Constitution that commits the federal government to the principle of making equalization payments should be removed.
“Albertans expect to be treated fairly — and we will bring our fight for fairness to the top of the national agenda,” Kenney tweeted last week.
Trudeau dismissed Kenney’s concerns during a recent visit to Calgary, noting the premier was part of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet when the latest deal was negotiated and suggesting Kenney is best positioned to explain why he now disagrees with his younger self.
Canada’s premiers are not scheduled to meet in any official capacity until October in Winnipeg, where Pallister, who now chairs the group, says long-term health care funding will be a priority.
For the public, strategists agree there is anger toward premiers and voters want to see the pandemic get under control and aren’t in the mood to watch a fight between Ottawa and the provinces.
As for which leader could stand to benefit from the current situation, Beland believes the advantage will go to Trudeau or the federal NDP. He said the public opinion struggles facing the outspoken Kenney and Ford, who governs a province rife with must-win seats, may ultimately harm O’Toole’s cause.
Chambers also noted that Trudeau often refrains from criticizing O’Toole by name when defending priority Liberal causes like climate change, directing his attacks towards conservatives as a general group instead.
“He’s clearly trying to make sure that people lump Jason Kenney, Doug Ford, all the other conservative premiers together with Erin O’Toole.”
Ford, who’s set to face a provincial election next year, previously said he wouldn’t campaign for anyone when the federal election is called.
It’s unclear what role Kenney, who campaigned for O’Toole during his bid for the federal leadership and proved to be an important ally, will play in the next campaign.
If there is one leader that could pose a threat to Trudeau, Beland said it may prove to be Quebec Premier François Legault.
Beland noted that the Liberals are trying to raise their seat count in the province, where Legault remains popular. He noted that the premier criticized Trudeau’s comments around a bill banning public servants from wearing religious symbols at work during the 2019 campaign, a move Beland believes may have hurt the Liberals chances in the province.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2021
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press