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Trudeau is leading an activist government — does Poilievre want to do the same?

Broad, multi-party support for the Liberal child care legislation may bode well for the program’s durability. And it can also be read as an implicit endorsement of the Trudeau government’s particular — and muscular —use of the federal spending power.

Poilievre's statements on housing suggest he shares the Liberals' enthusiasm for the 'power of the purse'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre take part in the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

With little fanfare, the House of Commons passed legislation last month to formally establish a federal child-care program.

The bill's passage was never really in doubt. Between Liberal and NDP MPs, the government had more than enough votes. But it's not every day the House agrees to create a major new social program (the bill still needs to pass the Senate).

Almost as notable as the bill's passage is the fact that the vote was unanimous — 315 to 0.

Seventeen years after Stephen Harper's Conservative government walked away from a set of child-care deals negotiated in the waning days of Paul Martin's Liberal government — and two years after the Conservatives said they would scrap Justin Trudeau's planned child-care investments — 110 Conservative MPs voted in favour of the Early Learning and Child Care Act.

The Conservative Party's support wasn't absolute — Conservatives complained that many of their proposed amendments were rejected. Crucially, it still remains to be seen whether the next Conservative campaign platform will commit to maintaining federal funding for child care at the level planned by the Liberals.

But the broad, multi-party support for the legislation may bode well for the program's durability. It also can be read as an implicit endorsement of the Trudeau government's particular — and muscular — use of the federal spending power.

The power of the purse

As researchers Peter Graefe and Nicole Fiorillo explained in a recent paper for the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the idea of a federal spending power emerged after the Second World War "as a workaround to the mismatch between the Constitution and pan-Canadian ambitions."

While the federal government can't directly regulate within areas of provincial jurisdiction, it can offer to transfer funds to provincial governments subject to specific conditions.

Graefe and Fiorillo say the way federal governments have used (or not used) that power has changed over the last 75 years — from the the postwar period of cost-sharing to the federal retrenchment in the 1980s and 1990s, from a renewed period of collaboration in the mid-90s and early 2000s to the (mostly) hands-off "open federalism" of the Harper government.

Since Trudeau came to office in 2015, Canada has seen a return to an "activist" federal government, Graefe and Fiorillo argue — perhaps even more activist than in previous eras.

Their analysis of Trudeau's government focuses on five major federal-provincial initiatives: the health care agreements signed in 2017, workforce development investments made in 2017, the child-care agreements of 2017 and 2021 and a housing partnership announced in 2018. Taken together, these deals "suggest that the current federal government feels more emboldened in asserting leadership than it did two decades ago."

"Partnership" with the provinces was the stated priority when the Liberals came to office. Graefe and Fiorillo say that partnership now seems to be "conditional on a province accepting the federal government's policy vision." They also say recent agreements require provinces to provide "a lot more detail and transparency in planning and reporting" than federal-provincial agreements made in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Graefe and Fiorillo don't cover the 10-year health care funding proposal made by the federal government earlier this year, but it seems to share the same characteristics. A new dental care program might bypass provincial governments entirely.

Will provinces start to push back?

If you support a strong federal government and national social programs, you're probably happy with these developments. If you're currently enjoying more affordable child care, you probably don't care which theory of federalism underpins the funding arrangement.

But Graefe and Fiorillo speculate that this new federal assertiveness could eventually provoke some kind of pushback from the provinces.

The framework for such a backlash might be found in a speech given last month by Sean Speer, a former senior policy adviser to Stephen Harper. Speer argues the federal government would be better off sticking to its own constitutional knitting — national security, trade and defence — and provinces should more jealously guard their own prerogatives.

"To borrow from Ronald Reagan, protecting provincial sovereignty is kind of like protecting your virtue: you have to learn to say no," Speer said.

Graefe and Fiorillo point out that any claim to jurisdictional sanctity likely was weakened by repeated provincial demands for federal engagement when Harper's Conservatives were in power. It's also not hard to understand why a premier might want something more than abstract principle to offer when explaining to voters why they turned down billions of dollars in new funding to create child-care spaces or hire more doctors.

In the case of health-care funding, the provinces never have a strong hand to play. Not only do they want and need federal money, they can't hope to escape the blame for shortcomings in health services resulting from a lack of funding.

On child care, reluctant provinces may have had even less ground to stand on. By committing $30 billion over five years, the Trudeau government was effectively offering to match what provincial governments were already spending.

There were conditions attached to that funding. And not every province was quick to sign on. But once the Liberals were re-elected in 2021, the remaining holdouts seemed to understand there was no use trying to tell voters that they'd be better off if their province didn't take the money. Ontario Premier Doug Ford made a deal just months before his own government had to run for re-election.

Politics, as much as ideology, might explain much of what the Trudeau government's activism has achieved. Not only has it enjoyed the power of the federal treasury, it has been pursuing things that are broadly supported by the public.

A future Conservative prime minister might exercise more restraint. But Pierre Poilievre seems more than a little willing to take an activist approach himself — and not just because his party supported the Liberal government's child-care legislation.

The Conservative leader is, understandably, preoccupied with the issue of housing. He has vowed that a government led by him would do a better job of getting more houses built. Part of his plan for doing so involves using federal funds to "reward" municipalities that get homes built faster — an idea similar to the Liberal government's own $4-billion housing accelerator fund.

But Poilievre has said he also would go a step further. He would withhold funds from, and even penalize, cities that fail to build houses fast enough.

Whatever one thinks of that idea, it probably can't be described as "open federalism." Indeed, it might be the case that Trudeau has ushered in a new era of bipartisan activist government.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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