The recent meeting of Canada’s premiers once again showed B.C. Premier John Horgan is charting a political path that over time will differ not only from his fellow federal premiers but also from his federal NDP leadership counterpart as well.
For all their bluster and talk about western alienation and pipelines, the premiers of the Midwest provinces – Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe – fell in with Horgan to issue a communique about a subject that really interests them beyond pretty well anything else.
That would be health-care spending.
Not that I blame Kenney, Moe and the others for suddenly pushing health care – as in, demanding the federal government contribute more funding to pay for it – to the top of their shopping list and downgrading, for now anyways, the rhetoric around Western alienation.
After all, health-care spending eats up more tax dollars of any province’s budget – anywhere from 40 to 45% – than any other single item, and the spending percentage threatens to climb as the population ages.
An older population not only needs to access health care more often, but the services they require are generally much more expensive to fund than the kinds they received at a younger age.
Horgan enthusiastically helped lead the premiers’ arguments that Ottawa has to come to the plate with more money going forward.
When our public health-care system was first created back in the 1960s, the funding split between the federal government and the provinces was roughly on a 50-50 basis.
Over time, that ratio has evolved more towards an 80-20 split, with the provinces picking up the lion’s share of that funding.
Eight years ago, the then-Conservative federal government arbitrarily served notice it would cut federal health-care funding from annual 6% increases to annual increases based on the nominal GDP (the economic growth rate minus inflation), which would be a minimum of 3%.
Over time, that cut has put enormous pressure on provincial finances, and now the provinces want the Trudeau government to put the annual increase closer to the old 6% figure than the current level of half that.
A difference of three percentage points does not sound like much, but when you are talking about the expensive health-care system, it translates to an enormous amount of money – tens of billions of dollars a year nationally.
Look for Horgan to lead this dialogue with the prime minister (oddly, his chief ally may be Ontario Premier Doug Ford, whose government desperately needs more federal health dollars) as he has a closer relationship with him than any other premier, most of whom are Conservative.
This is where Horgan’s long-running bromance with Trudeau may pay real dividends for B.C. He is not interested in complaining about western alienation, and he has essentially thrown in the towel when it comes to opposing the TMX pipeline.
Horgan has even thrown cold water on NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s demand for a national pharmacare program (Horgan has rightly pointed out B.C. has its own pharmacare program, so a national one is not a pressing priority for him).
Singh has mused about voting against Trudeau’s Throne Speech, but you can be sure Horgan takes a dim view of that. Not that Singh is any position to take the government down – his party is broke and cannot afford another election campaign any time soon, and in any case, the Bloc Quebecois has signalled it will vote for the speech and thus allow Trudeau to pass a confidence vote.
Horgan needs and wants Trudeau to stay in power, and the prime minister knows that. This may give the B.C. premier some significant political leverage his colleagues in the Council of the Federation (the Star Trek-like name for the premiers gathering) notably lack.
The premiers are set to meet with the newly re-elected prime minister next month. Look for Horgan and Trudeau (and even Ford, as improbable as that may seem) to emerge as key allies, as Kenney and Moe may find themselves increasingly isolated on the lonely stage of western alienation.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.