What is the point of a First Ministers Conference?
There is no actual necessity for them, you understand. The federal and provincial governments are quite able to function within their respective jurisdictions without their leaders dashing off across the country at regular intervals to quiver their jowls at each other. The first such meeting was not held until 1906. Just 10 more “dominion-provincial conferences” occurred over the next 40 years. Not until the 1950s did they become the semi-annual affairs we know today. That this was also when the TV cameras arrived is possibly not coincidental.
If there were actual business to transact, it could just as easily be arranged by subordinates, or over the phone, or via video-conference. Or if an issue were so thorny that it genuinely required a fleshly first-ministerial encounter, the prime minister could always meet bilaterally with the premier or premiers involved, as Stephen Harper did.
But a full-on, capital-F First Ministers Conference, official cars, flag-backed lecterns and all? There is invariably but one purpose to these: for the 10 premiers to corner and harass the prime minister, using the imbalance in their numbers to depict the feds as the outlier. Sometimes this is in furtherance of the premiers’ perennial campaign for more federal cash. Sometimes, as in the current exercise, the point seems to be conflict for conflict’s sake. But always — always — it is theatre.
Only it is theatre of a peculiar kind: with the curtains drawn and the sound down, the audience being instead entertained by periodic reports from agents for each of the actors about who said what. Thus the breathless dispatches from reporters orbiting the conference — they are kept well away from the actual meeting room — every line of it originating from sources, federal or provincial, with a professional interest in puffing one leader or the other.
The effect is rather like reading the notes we used to pass in homeroom. Bill Morneau spoke too long! Everyone was so embarrassed! But Catherine McKenna did not! Ooh, did Doug Ford ever get schooled by Justin Trudeau! No, wait: the premier of New Brunswick just interrupted the finance minister! Much pre-conference speculation attached to which premier might storm out of the conference on what pretext.
In the end, none did, but not before a lot of heavy breathing over the supposed “tension” and “acrimony” said to exist between the participants. For which we will have to take everyone’s word for it, the officials inside the room and the reporters without, each with their own interest in pretending the emotions the leaders are paid to pantomime are real. We will have to take their word for it, because the meetings are held in private.
A First Ministers Conference held in front of the cameras would be theatre, but useful theatre: as in question period, or the televised election debates, there is sometimes something to be learned from direct public encounters between political rivals, when they are under pressure and (at least somewhat) off script. Recall Pierre Trudeau’s seemingly spontaneous challenge to Rene Levesque, at the November 1981 First Ministers Conference on patriation, that they settle their differences via a nationwide referendum, and Levesque’s instant acceptance: all of it televised.
That was a conference with a real agenda, of course, and real stakes. (I dare say there was also some genuine emotion.) Compare that to the utter contrivance of this week’s installment.
The original agenda for the conference was meaty enough: the elimination of interprovincial trade barriers. Of course, if federal-provincial conferences were likely to achieve this, the economic union would have been completed long ago. Sooner or later it will dawn on people that leaving internal free trade to interprovincial negotiations is the problem, not the solution: the very attempt only encourages the idea that the provinces are not part of a larger whole, with an overarching national interest to which they are obliged to defer, but little countries whose populations are as alien to one another as those of sovereign states.
Anyway. If the premiers were of a mind to get rid of the trade barriers they have so carefully preserved until now, they could have done so in a day. It would have made for a memorable meeting. But as they had no wish to do anything of the kind, they collectively changed the subject, demanding any number of other issues be put on the agenda — all of them, as it happened, matters of federal jurisdiction.
So rather than discuss things over which they have some control, and therefore some responsibility, the premiers demanded the meeting be given over to haranguing the feds for their failure to arrange their own affairs in a manner the premiers might prefer: pipelines, Bill C-69, steel tariffs, refugee policy and of course the federal carbon tax. The likelihood that anything constructive would be accomplished on any of these was always near zero.
The premiers are entitled to their opinion, of course, and the Trudeau government richly deserves to be criticized on all those fronts and more. Only the premiers are not elected to scrutinize federal affairs: that’s what we elect a Parliament for. It is to the House of Commons the federal government is accountable, not the premiers.
Away with these preenfests, then. If there is some urgent public matter requiring the first ministers to convene, fine. Otherwise, hold them in public or hold them not at all.
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