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A pan-canadian lens on the Speech from the Throne

The Trudeau government's Speech from the Throne on September 23 was more anticipated than most as it was happening during a global pandemic and severe economic uncertainty. The Throne Speech is a government’s blueprint or game plan. It tells us what they intend to focus on and, by inference, what they want to spend money on during their mandate.

NATIONAL’s public affairs experts—from east to west—look at how the speech resonated in different regions across the country.

View from Atlantic provinces

In the East, the “Atlantic Bubble” has yet to burst. This bubble has become synonymous with shared interests and cooperation. While political philosophies and election cycles complicate this approach, the premiers have publicly stuck together in the name of health and safety.

The region is home to the country’s oldest population, and healthcare debates monopolized much of the political discourse prior to the pandemic. The cautious approach taken by the provincial governments has shielded the region from the larger-scale COVID-19 outbreaks that have been experienced across the country. Atlantic Canadians are worried about their health and safety, a fact that is reflected in the continued support for travel restrictions.

Atlantic governments will welcome the federal commitments to new national standards for long-term care. As we know, the devil is in the details and the premiers will be calling for this commitment to be realized in health transfers to the provinces. These federal-provincial negotiations can be among the most adversarial, and it will be interesting to see if the region adopts a united approach to dealing with the federal government—and if that is consistent with the other provinces and territories.

There is still significant uncertainty around the economy and concern for those sectors hit hardest by the pandemic. The tourism and hospitality industries contribute significantly to the region’s economy, and operators were planning for a record year. The federal commitment to support the industry will be welcomed by tourism operators across the region, who require capital and support to help them stabilize and prepare for a recovery that is predicting to take several years.

The foundation of the Atlantic economy is largely based on the region’s abundance of natural resources—from forestry and the fishery, to mining and oil and gas. The Throne Speech, through the lens of building a clean, sustainable economy, declared its commitment to the Atlantic Loop, a “top regional priority” that “will connect surplus clean power to regions transitioning away from coal.” At the same time, the federal government is reiterating its support to help protect jobs in the natural resource and energy sectors, answering the call from Newfoundland and Labrador to help protect the beleaguered oil and gas industry. This is the political tightrope that the federal Liberals must walk—embracing a bold vision for the future that doesn’t alienate a politically significant region.

View from Quebec

The Governor General had not yet finished reading the Speech from the Throne that François Legault was already reacting on social media. The Premier of Quebec described it as “disappointing” as it doesn’t respect provinces’ own jurisdictions, according to him.

All of the opposition parties in Quebec have also decried Ottawa’s interference in the administration of the province.

For years, health transfers have been the main focus of the Quebec government, but of all Canadian provinces. Mr. Legault, who is now leading an economy swimming in deficits due to the current pandemic hoped that Trudeau would take advantage of the SFT to announce an increase in these transfers. Annually, health spending increases from 5% to 6%, while federal transfers only do so by 3%. This is a shortfall of nearly $12 billion each year for Quebec. The weight of these federal transfers has been steadily declining over the past 40 years, from 50% to about 20% of provincial health spending. These declining transfers are putting pressure on provinces whose health spending continues to rise.

Over the next year, François Legault intends to take advantage of the fact that he chairs the Council of the Federation to put pressure on the federal government so that these transfers are enhanced. All provinces support this position, particularly Ontario, which joined forces with Quebec earlier this month on this very issue. Politically, François Legault uses his popularity to sway Justin Trudeau, who heads a minority government that could be overthrown at any time. For his part, Prime Minister Trudeau is using the catastrophic situation in Quebec’s long-term care homes to introduce conditions to his health transfers.

Amongst Quebec’s other concerns about Ottawa’s intentions are the funding of childcare spaces and the creation of a universal pharmacare plan. Quebec is looking to assert its right to opt out (with financial compensation) since it already has a daycare network and its own drug insurance plan. The Prime Minister has so far denied this request.

This Speech from the Throne will not have helped improve the relationship between Quebec and Ottawa. We will see in the future federal budget whether the message from provinces on federal transfers has been heard.

View from Ontario

In Ontario and at Queen’s Park, focus will be on efforts to secure additional health funding. With troubling growth in COVID-19 cases, the Ford government has committed just over $1 billion to improve testing and contact tracing efforts. However, Premier Doug Ford continues to push the federal government to speed up approvals for new testing methods that have already been adopted in other countries.

Beyond COVID-19, there are several initiatives that the Premier could take issue with, including the introduction of a national pharmacare program, especially since one of his government’s first actions was to scale back its provincial equivalent, the OHIP+ program, previously introduced by the Wynne government.

On the bright side, federal commitments to lower interprovincial trade barriers line up well with Premier Ford’s “open for business” mantra, as do investments in infrastructure, public transit, and zero-emission vehicles, which are being built at the Ford plant in Oakville.

Keep an eye on negotiations between the province and the federal government regarding the Canada Health Transfer. As the largest budget item in any province, health is never far from the top of the agenda, especially during a pandemic.

View from Alberta

Discontent bubbles forth in Alberta, much like the oil that is at the root of so much friction between the province and Ottawa.

Premier Jason Kenney, as he is not afraid to do, made his position on the speech abundantly clear: “We will not generate levels of economic growth to support that scale of government spending by turning our back on the resource industries and related sectors that have been the key pillars of the Canadian economy.”

Kenney criticized the federal government for not supporting the oil and gas sector through the COVID-19 pandemic and for ignoring premiers’ ask for an increase in healthcare transfers and changes to economic stabilization. Former premier and Opposition leader Rachel Notley suggested that Kenney’s lack of collaboration with Ottawa would hurt Albertans; the NDP has criticized the UCP government since the advent of COVID-19.

Most Albertans have an aversion to debt, and the suggestion from the Prime Minister that “Canadians should not have to take on debt that their government can better shoulder” is not one that rings true for many in the province. Locals are concerned about the huge deficit Alberta itself has taken on and wonder where the money will come from for Alberta’s budgets, existing federal COVID-19 programs, and the spending considered in the Throne Speech. From thousands of kilometres apart, Edmonton and Ottawa still eye each other warily.

View from British Columbia

In British Columbia, the Throne Speech was, with a touch of hyperbole, much ado about nothing. With a provincial election scheduled for October 24, all eyes are on Premier John Horgan and his efforts to maintain power for his NDP.

From the campaign trail, Horgan did offer support for the extension of the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program and the plan for a national childcare program: “I very much look forward to new federal resources for childcare, which is a shared priority, and would be a key priority for a re-elected BC NDP government.”

For Horgan, the goal was to frame the Throne Speech in a way most positive for his re-election chances. That means reminding voters of his record on COVID-19 and childcare, while wooing federal Liberal supporters who, at the provincial level, tend to shuffle back and forth between the NDP and the Liberals.

The response in British Columbia reinforces an old political adage: all politics is local. Premiers, opposition leaders, mayors and others will dissect the Throne Speech for any stray sentence or word that supports their positions. Whether or not those words and sentences translate into dollars and action remains to be seen.

NATIONAL’s pan-Canadian Public affairs team has cross-country reach and expertise, able to view critical issues through a federal-provincial perspective.

——— Written by Braedon Clark, Senior Consultant, Yash Dogra, Senior Consultant, Public Affairs Corporate Affairs, Jeffrey Ferrier, Vice-President, Public Affairs Strategic Communications, John Sparks, Strategic Counsel and Cynthia St-Hilaire, Senior Consultant at NATIONAL Public Relations

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