Doug Ford and Jason Kenney had a grand old time in Alberta the other night.
Appearing together before an overflow crowd of 1,500 true believers in Calgary, the two provincial leaders – one in power, the other in waiting -- pledged their mutual, undying opposition to carbon taxes, and they took turns swatting enthusiastically at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Trudeau, of course, is doubly damned among Conservatives in Alberta. Not only is he a Liberal who is friendly with NDP Premier Rachel Notley, he is the son of Pierre, the Great Satan of oil patch mythology, who will never be forgotten or forgiven for his notorious National Energy Program.
That was back in 1980, but the grievance doesn’t just linger. It bursts into flame whenever the issue of national carbon pricing is raised. Justin Trudeau did have the backing of both Ontario and Alberta for it, but Ford has withdrawn Ontario’s support and Alberta’s support, which was contingent on completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, is wavering and may be lost.
That was red meat for the Calgary “Scrap the Carbon Tax” rally last Friday. Neither Kenney nor Ford is much of an orator, but both have a bit of Donald Trump’s knack for exploiting a sympathetic crowd.
The crowd roared approval when Kenney called Notley’s carbon tax “the biggest lie in Alberta’s history” and promised that a United Conservative Party government would repeal it. It roared again when the Ontario premier bestowed the blessing of Ford Nation: “Stay strong, your next election is one that conservatives can win, an election we will win, and an election we must win.”
On his way to Calgary, Ford stopped in Saskatchewan long enough to pick up the support of Premier Scott Moe and his Saskatchewan Party. Meanwhile, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premier, Brian Pallister, announced he would no longer support a carbon tax.
If, as expected, New Brunswick joins the flock, Doug Ford, the most improbable of premiers, would find himself at the head of a block of five provinces out to do battle with a federal government that is supported – for now, at least – by two major provinces, British Columbia and Quebec.
After a period of calm, even peace, in federal-provincial affairs, the cycle is turning to a new period of strained relations and confrontation between Ottawa and the provincial capitals.
Part of it is due to the rise of conservative populism in Ontario and Alberta and potentially in other provinces, as well. Part is due to the election losses of Trudeau allies in Ontario, Quebec and, subject to recounts, New Brunswick.
And part is due to the vulnerability of the federal Liberals as they face an election at this time next year.
With the Constitution on Ottawa’s side, Trudeau can win the carbon-tax confrontation, but it is a harbinger of more trouble ahead as the provinces flex their political muscle.
Considering Ontario alone, one fed-prov issue will be immigration policy, including the cost of refugee settlement. Ottawa expects the provinces to share such costs as housing, income support and language training for refugees. Nuts to that, says Ford.
The feds have had a keen interest in the basic income project launched by the former Wynne government. The Trudeau government may decide to step in to keep the project alive if Ford persists in winding it down.
Safe injection sites for street drug users is a public health issue that concerns both levels of government. The Ford government has put a freeze on new sites and seems determined to shut them all down.
It is highly improbable that a federal Liberal government would stand idly by while more addicts die preventable deaths in the streets of Canada’s big cities.
Differences between federal and provincial governments are nothing new in Canada. There have been battles over everything from medicare to patriation of the constitution. The differences widen when the federal government is left-liberal while conservatism with an overlay of populism is rising in the provinces.
Expect rough seas ahead.