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Opinion: Morneau’s political post-mortem prescribes. Will Trudeau listen?

For British Columbians looking for clues on the current federal perspective on the province, there is fairly thin gruel to consume.

The new book by former federal finance minister Bill Morneau is a sorrowful statement. 

It oozes disappointment in its description of the swift decline from the promise of Justin Trudeau’s 2015 election, his government’s focus on optics over all else in crucial policy-making and the steady souring over a half-decade of a star candidate in Morneau who, once stationed in the seat of power, felt miscast and eventually estranged.

The attention on the book would be stronger if it weren’t telling us what we have long inferred. Where To From Here: A Path to Canadian Prosperity generally ticks the box officially on the public’s perceived traits and troubles of the prime minister as, above all, a performative figure, not an intellectual one. 

It stands, like Jody Wilson-Raybould’s book two years ago, as a rare indictment of a sitting prime minister from someone purged from his inner circle. In normal circumstances its dissection ought to be a takedown, but as we have seen, Trudeau somehow survives credible critique, so it is hard to see how even a book like Morneau’s will send him to the showers.

And unlike many other tell-much political tales, it feels not at all like the start of a comeback but a thorough post-mortem by someone who could be in the prime of a political career but wants to walk far, far away. Its prescriptions for a focus on competitiveness and productivity, on long-term health-care funding and on halting the introduction of shared-cost programs until there are agreements on their goals amount to basic common sense. They also serve as a lament on squandered opportunities in an era of low interest rates and a loosening of public finances that could have yielded a better dynamic of government economic involvement with private sector investment.

For British Columbians looking for clues on the current federal perspective on the province, there is fairly thin gruel to consume. Perhaps the best insight from Morneau (assisted in the writing by the prolific author John Lawrence Reynolds) comes in the haphazard acquisition of the TransMountain pipeline, because it speaks to his frustration about a systemic failure to capitalize on federal-provincial opportunities.

“My five years in national politics led me to conclude that Canada works not despite our federal-provincial relationship but because of it,” he writes, adding later that “our future success depends on getting this relationship right, or at least making it the best it can be.”

Why so? Morneau makes clear that Canada is at the “bottom of the barrel” on productivity and at the top of the heap of provincial and territorial taxes among OECD countries. It is essential, then, that political power be decentralized to reflect their financial clout. With federal transfers atop their take, provinces and territories have more than half of tax revenue and confer two-thirds of government spending. 

It only makes sense, he argues: “Placing a good deal of power and responsibility in the hands of the provinces yields dividends because the provinces are best positioned to provide services that meet the specific needs of their population.”

Yet Morneau observes that a framework is lacking to optimize this environment of compromise. “My experience in government revealed that not enough focus is placed on establishing an accepted framework to deal with situations that are complex, involve multiple jurisdictions and are vital to the country’s economic performance.” The primary reason? “A lack of leadership attention to managing our most important set of relationships — with each other.”

The “most significant” conflict came in the vastly different perspectives in B.C. and Alberta on TransMountain, he writes. “Just about every hot button you can name was part of this file. We had Indigenous groups both supporting and opposing the project, environmental advocates demanding it not go forward, energy sector leaders explaining the necessity of transporting our resources to market, premiers from two provinces exerting their authority over what each saw as their responsibility to their constituents and the federal government maintaining its constitutional right to be in charge of interprovincial trade.”

Amid all this, there was no process to resolve differences. Discussions didn’t take place “until the crisis grew hot,” and it was left to the pipeline’s owners to try to resolve the mess. Eventually, the federal government had to do what it didn’t want to do: Spend $4.5 billion to buy an asset to temporarily assume control so the project did not falter. That was nearly five years ago. The pipeline progresses but remains unfinished and unsold. 

Morneau isn’t sure that circumstances would have been different with a more systematic approach, but he notes the successful 2016 reworking of the Canada Pension Plan with the provinces as an example of how to get things done. 

“We lacked a similar framework to guide the way forward for projects like TransMountain or to deal with other conflicts. This has proven burdensome when managing long-term issues like health care spending or interprovincial trade. In place of a framework, we depend on informal procedures.”

First ministers’ meetings typically don’t dwell on long-term challenges. As we’ve seen, they repeatedly go nowhere on health financing or immediate political issues. Still, they are what we have to solve our largest matters as a nation.

“But where’s the management?” he asks. “Where is the guiding hand that builds, confirms and employs good working relationships, revealing each side’s needs and expectations, to ease the way toward a compromise? And where is the framework to define both the means and the goal?” I know who he was writing that for; doubtful he will read it.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

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