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Canada Why Trudeau might not mind federal-provincial squabbles, on pharmacare and plenty else

No sooner had a federal panel recommended the implementation of a universal pharmacare system than speculation began about whether Ottawa could attain enough provincial co-operation to make it happen.

From a campaign perspective, if not a governance one, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals might consider any such resistance more a feature than a bug.

Seeking his first term as Prime Minister in 2015, Mr. Trudeau was able to peddle a new era of federal-provincial co-operation, with due deference to provincial jurisdiction, in pursuit of big national goals. And in the early stages of his mandate, he went some distance toward that, including an expansion of the Canada Pension Plan and an initial buy-in to federal carbon-pricing requirements.

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A lot has changed in four years. Conservative governments have replaced Liberal or relatively Liberal-friendly ones in Ontario, Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. Mr. Trudeau has been hardened by increasingly adversarial relationships with some of them, among other challenges. And no longer running against Stephen Harper, he needs adversaries who will galvanize his supporters in a way that Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer might not.

It’s been obvious for a while now that the Liberals intend to lump in Mr. Scheer with certain premiers – Ontario’s Doug Ford, and to a lesser extent Alberta’s Jason Kenney – as a threat to target voters’ values.

It is only just starting to come into focus, though, how an aggressive social-policy agenda may take that beyond the abstract – in which Mr. Trudeau is presented as standing between Canada and right-wing populism – and into more tangible matters.

Particularly in Ontario, where Mr. Ford started off unpopular with people who would consider voting Liberal federally and has only gotten more so, Mr. Trudeau seems to be setting up a case for why a federal Conservative government as well would lead to policy needs, which might otherwise be addressed by provincial governments, not being addressed by either level of government.

The most obvious example is Ottawa’s implementation of a carbon tax in provinces (Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick) that do not meet federal carbon-pricing requirements. But that doesn’t seem to be the area of intervention they’re most eager to talk about.

The Liberals aren’t shying away from trying to strike contrasts on environmental policy, as evidenced by this month’s announcement of federal funding for an Ontario tree-planting program, after Mr. Ford’s government cut it. It’s easier for them to push back against criticism from parties on their left that they’re not moving swiftly enough to fight climate change, or undermining that fight by supporting pipeline expansion, when they have premiers who are useful as foils because they are borderline dismissive of the issue.

But when asked about the focal point of their coming campaign, members of Mr. Trudeau’s campaign team tend to raise affordability, economic opportunity and income equality as preferred topics. And it’s here where they clearly see opportunity in the contrast with Mr. Ford, especially.

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In Mr. Ford’s chaotic first year, cuts to everything from children’s services to public-health units to legal aid contributed to a perceived deficit in compassion, despite limited impact on the fiscal one.

In some cases, as with tree-planting, Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals may step in directly with funding for programs cut provincially. (To some extent, this applies to pharmacare, since Mr. Ford rolled back a drug-coverage expansion by the previous government, although what the federal Liberals are proposing is much more ambitious.) More broadly, they seem intent on launching social-spending initiatives that less frugal provincial governments might take on instead.

If they’re not looking to be seen picking fights, the Liberals may justify such promises by contending that, despite its own deficit, Ottawa has more spending capacity than cash-strapped provinces. Or they may overtly present their government as a social-spending backstop that voters can’t afford to remove by putting Mr. Scheer in power while his provincial cousins hold it, too.

Any ensuing tensions will certainly have its risks for Mr. Trudeau. There is already a high degree of federal-provincial conflict, mostly around carbon pricing and resource management. If matters also get heated around social-spending ambitions – which in pharmacare’s case could be around the creation of a national drug formulary, despite health care being a provincial responsibility – it could make for mounting fatigue with the dysfunction.

But the Liberals’ concern, this election, won’t be with pundits who fret about the state of the federation. As in most campaigns, their biggest imperative will be rallying centre-left voters – people who might otherwise vote NDP or Green or stay home – behind them against the Tories. Many of those folks are disillusioned with Mr. Trudeau, but they like him a lot better than the premiers most inclined to get into fights with him.

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