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Justin Trudeau is talking over the premiers – just like his father did

The Prime Minister who talked to the premiers has now learned to talk over them.

For a year, Justin Trudeau curried favour with provincial leaders, touting a new collaboration. Now, it seems like he's laying down the federal law.

Last week, he stood in the Commons to announce he will impose a carbon levy on provinces that don't do it themselves, even as as his Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, was in Montreal discussing that very issue with provincial ministers.

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OPINION: Trudeau flexes his muscle with provinces

Next week, Health Minister Jane Philpott meets her counterparts to discuss a new health accord – but with the provinces clamouring for more federal money, she has warned them there won't be much, and instead they must start discussing reforms in areas such as home care.

Suddenly, Mr. Trudeau is talking tough to the premiers. But he's really trying to talk over them, to the public.

That's something his father preached. In his fiery farewell speech in 1984, Pierre Trudeau insisted he was able to repatriate the Constitution because he pushed aside the narrow interests of the premiers by making his case directly to Canadians, with a "people's" Charter of Rights.

"Pierre Trudeau talked famously about talking over the premiers," said John English, the historian and biographer of the elder Trudeau. That's not something Justin Trudeau would say, Mr. English said, but the younger Trudeau accepts the principle that a PM has a direct relationship with Canadians that doesn't have go through the premiers. In other words, he'll take his case to the public. Mr. Trudeau's predecessor, Stephen Harper, avoided convening the premiers because it built a pulpit for their demands. But Mr. Trudeau has opened talks with premiers – and now he's trying to bring the public in on his side.

On carbon pricing, Mr. Trudeau's real end game has to be isolating one Premier – Saskatchewan's Brad Wall – and making a deal with the rest.

The Prime Minister's announcement that if provinces don't act, he will impose a carbon levy of $10 a tonne in 2018, rising to $50 in 2022, doesn't end the broader climate-change talks.

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Despite the drama, he'd been signalling for months that such a move was coming. He still has more allies, including the premiers of Ontario and Quebec, than foes. Alberta's Rachel Notley said she can't accept the higher price unless Ottawa approves an oil pipeline – but that's probably just what Mr. Trudeau plans.

The big wrinkle is the reticence of Atlantic Canada premiers, especially Nova Scotia's Stephen McNeil. But you can bet the federal Liberals will try hard to bring them into the tent. If there's going to be a provincial opponent, they want it to be Mr. Wall.

The Saskatchewan Premier has been reluctant to act on emissions, and has remained opposed to a carbon levy. But the federal Liberals ran on a national carbon price, and six in 10 Canadians support it, according to a recent Nanos poll. Mr. Trudeau's announcement pushes the political battle clearly into public view. Mr. Trudeau would be happy to tout a deal with nine premiers.

When it comes to health care, Mr. Trudeau is playing defence. The premiers all insist Ottawa must keep increasing health transfers by 6 per cent a year. And their chief "negotiating" tool is persuading the public that anything less is neglect.

This is big money: The premiers' "ask" would see transfers rise to $61-billion in a decade from $36-billion now. Mr. Trudeau's government wants to trim the sum – and it also wants to be able to say it didn't just dole out money, it also helped to change Canadians' health care. So Mr. Trudeau has sent out Dr. Philpott.

She has started by low-balling the provinces on money, suggesting Ottawa might stick to the smaller increases planned under Stephen Harper, closer to 3 per cent. But, more importantly, she's trying to push the provinces into a public conversation that is about reforms, not money – to weaken public support for the provincial demands.

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It won't be enough. The $3-billion over three years that Ottawa is offering in return for reforms is tiny compared to provincial health spending. If Ottawa doesn't put a little more on the table, then Mr. Trudeau's collaboration with the provinces really will dry up. But he hasn't stopped talking to the premiers yet. It's just that he has started talking over them, too.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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