It has been said that each of the 13 colonies, prior to the American Revolution, had stronger ties with the British motherland than with any of the other 12. The notion would seem to suggest, for Canadian purposes, that geo- graphic proximity is an insufficient condition for meaning- ful unity; and that strategy may well overcome geography to create unlikely unity. Of course, the more complex the unity at stake, the greater the import of the strategy " which is where the Brits got it wrong, and where Canadian leaders, from Macdonald to Harper, have had to get it very right.
One of the cardinal tautologies of this early new, global- ized century is that the Canadian state, much like its con- stituent provinces and territories, has become very complex indeed. This complexity means that there is nary a policy issue that fails to straddle the discrete constitutional responsibilities assigned to the federal and provincial governments " mainly as described in sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act, 1867. National security, health care, the environment, economic productivity, strategic infrastructure, Aboriginal questions, immigration, even foreign policy and international commerce " all have very tangible and material federal and provincial components. (Multilateral constitutional reform, evidently, is another such policy domain " one that may again before long acquire a certain political currency.)
Enter strategy: Shadowing this increase in the complexity of the federation, over the last 20 years, has been a paradoxical and marked diminution in the number of formal policy meetings " so-called First Ministers’ Meetings or conferences " between the prime minister and all of the provincial premiers. The genesis of this diminution can likely be traced to the failed constitutional negotiations at Meech Lake and Charlottetown (the latter indeed attempting to constitutionalize regular First Ministers’ Meetings). This said, the conventional strategic wis- dom that has seemed to sustain the paucity of such meetings consists in the presumption of sitting prime ministers that for- mal First Ministers’ Meetings can result only in misery for the federal government. Indeed, a prime minister is more likely to be inclined to deal with each of the premiers on a bilateral, informal or ad hoc basis, depending on the policy file in ques- tion " if only to avoid the traditional political and media buildup and high expectations associated with formal First Ministers’ Meetings in Canada, or to simply avoid the media altogether. He may also see the formal First Ministers’ Meeting as a public, largely contrarian forum for exorbitant, little-recip- rocated and often highly elastic ”œasks” by the provincial pre- miers " in other words, centrifugal stresses on both the federal purse and the integrity of federal constitutional powers. Prime Minister Harper, for his part, might add the original nuance that, in his view, certain First Ministers’ Meetings can tend only toward unnecessary encroachments by one level of govern- ment on the constitutional competences of another.
The result of this strategic logic, predictably, has been that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had formal First Ministers’ Meetings very irregularly " indeed, less than one per year in power, and only one (on health care) in his final three years; Paul Martin had only one " also mainly on health care " in his two years in office; and Stephen Harper has to date, also, after nearly three years in power, had only one first ministers’ meeting largely in camera. (NAFTA, NATO and G8 summits have all been held with greater frequency, as have, on the provincial side, meetings of the Council of the Federation and those of regional provinces and American states.) In point of fact, until the recent, unexpected agreement by Prime Minister Harper to hold a first minis- ters’ meeting by the end of calendar 2008 (agenda to be determined), there had been precious little evidence that another meeting would be held before the next general federal election.
One might suppose that such terri- bly infrequent gatherings of prime min- ister and premiers should pass with negligible consequence for the gover- nance of Canada. (For good measure, we might easily presume that representa- tives of First Nations and perhaps even municipal governments could well have a place at such a table " the said com- plexity oblige.) Such a supposition, how- ever, is belied by two critical realities: first, as mentioned, most of Canada’s key policy files straddle the federal-provin- cial divide; and second, and most impor- tantly, because of the mass and complexity of the government bureau- cracies that run these files, meaningful f o rward movement on any file can con- sist only in a sustained, serious process that mobilizes the machineries of gov- ernments at both federal and provincial levels. And the most muscular mobiliza- tion of government bureaucracies occurs strictly through stable executive interest, pressure and direction " in particular, direction from the head of government.
Just as the federal executive " the prime minister, in particular " greases the wheels of the federal bureaucracy, so too must there be sustained and reasonably concurrent political oxygen from all of the country’s heads of government in order to advance interlocking or cross-jurisdictional files of national import. Absent such oxygen across all governments, attempts to advance pan-Canadian policy files will amount to niche projects; in essence, mere pokes or small dents " themselves often incoherent or inconsistent across the governments " in the national pol- icy infrastructure. In the worst case, such initiatives, typically mooted by the federal government, will reduce to naught. A media release will be issued about soi-disant intergovernmental cooperation. Political and bureaucratic incentives to deliver meaningfully on the file will be small, and accountability for results paltry. The media and general public, conflating intergovernmental calm (indeed, stasis) with a healthy fed- eration, will fail to complain.
So the dearth of First Ministers’ Meet- ings in Canada " the said conven- tional strategic wisdom " may well make for good politics, but it often makes for poor national policy. The prime min- ister, and indeed some of the premiers, may be spared the notorious ”œtrip to the dentist” of which Jacques Parizeau once contemptuously spoke. Ten (or thirteen or more) men and women will not need to stare down the one, and the one will not need to rely on opportunistic coali- tions to save face in front of a public that mercilessly awaits a deal. Such good poli- tics, however, fails to move the federa- tion forward in concrete policy terms. Major interlocking issues are dealt with, if at all, either strictly on an intrajurisdic- tional basis or via sporadic agreements or arrangements between two or more provinces (such as through the Council of the Federation) or between the federal government and one or more provinces. But no bona fide pan-federation plan- ning and oversight mechanism exists " a strange state of affairs indeed.
Granted, bureaucrats from all levels of govern- ment meet often, and stand- ing forums for meetings among cabinet ministers of the various governments do exist. Still, the deliverables issuing from such meetings and forums are more often than not transactional rather than transformative " all by virtue of the brute fact that it is only the centre of government, led by the prime minister or the respective premiers, that can approve transformational change and, even more saliently, drive such change over an adequate period of time.
What is to be done? The conven- tional strategic wisdom cur- rently has it that the prime minister meets with the premiers on an as- needed basis, and preferably as seldom as politically necessary. Product (out- comes) is privileged over process, and politics is privileged over policy. And yet, paradoxically, for the very absence of serious, sustained intergovernmen- tal process, product and policy have been poor; that is, not in keeping with the scale of the complexity at stake.
The famous Martin first ministers’ meeting of 2004 on health care is para- digmatic in this regard. A single meeting of first ministers was called to ”œfix health care for a generation.” The bureaucracies of the federal and provin- cial governments " mostly at their very apexes " were collectively mobilized for a very brief moment in preparation for the meeting: to lay the policy ground- work, as it were, for the final political deal. The deal was made, for better or worse, and because there was no plan for a repeat of this elite political forum on health care (the deal, after all, was to be a generational fix), the participant bureaucracies were demobilized. Whatever intergovernmental (bureau- cratic and political) best practices " consultations, policy development, trust " were developed in the lead-up to the first ministers’ meeting were discarded, with little strategic consideration given to the great expense of reinventing the entire wheel whenever the next big meeting should be convened.
Indeed, it is this very reinvention of the procedural wheel that makes the dominant strategic logic of First Ministers’ Meetings so difficult to justify in policy terms. For the one-off dynam- ic (or one-off ”œgame,” to use the eco- nomics parlance) only serves to exaggerate the stakes of each discrete meeting, with each meeting lending itself to impossible asks by premiers (or even prime minister), outlandish politi- cal hyperbole (”œfix for a generation”) and overly fastidious expectations by both media and public for a glamorous denouement. The deal that fails to materialize or measure up to these enor- mous expectations is invariably con- demned. The health of the federation " even national unity " is questioned.
The alternative scenario is equally problematic. An important one-off deal materializes, and is in keeping, more or less, with the exigencies of most parties. Everyone goes home happy, more or less. But who ensures that the policy goals of the deal, nationally speaking, are advanced over time? The federal spending power notwithstand- ing, in the context of a deal that is not to be revisited in the foreseeable future at a formal first ministers’ meeting, each government " federal and provincial " is left to its own devices to implement elements of the said deal as it sees fit, answering only to its particular elec- torate " however vaguely. In extremis, a postdeal intergovernmental (bureau- cratic) task force may continue to over- see the progress of the deal, but this task force, in the absence of a future audi- ence with the prime minister and pre- miers, will have lost much of the political oxygen or momentum that existed in the lead-up to the deal-mak- ing first ministers’ meeting.
So the absence of a standing or permanent first ministers’ process means that there is patently no system- atic framework for regular, substantive advancement of complex, pan- Canadian policy issues. Conventional wariness of process compromises " or indeed negates " product. And yet this wariness of process fails to appreciate the great potential policy virtues of a serious, stable first ministers’ structure.
First and foremost, such a process would, like most stable processes, over time develop a forward agenda or work plan. If prime minister and premiers meet twice or thrice a year on a standing basis (by formal intergovernmental agreement), the forward agenda might credibly stretch one or two meetings into the future. The one-off game of today’s First Ministers’ Meetings dies. The political and bureaucratic planning horizons begin to stretch beyond the immediate. The paradigm shift begins to take shape.
The agenda and forward agenda may, depending on the founding inter- governmental agreement, be set by the PM alone or the PM in consultation with the premiers. As they would today, both the federal and provincial sides would invariably come to the negotiat- ing table with typical jurisdictional asks " centripetal for the federal side, cen- trifugal for the provincial sides. But these conflicting polarities or positions may be softened and, over time, even fused through the development of agen- das " current and forward " consisting of small, incremental deliverables for each first ministers’ meeting. Avoiding, in the main, one-off ”œbig ticket” deliver- ables, it is these more modest policy increments that, over the course of sev- eral First Ministers’ Meetings, lead to important transformations in pan- Canadian policy. The incrementalism lowers the political stakes and potential conflict at each individual meeting, all the while diminishing the cost of failure "thatis,thecostofa”œnodeal”ata given meeting " and lending itself to a smoother, longer-term stream of policy deliverables. (Pace political theatre, from a strictly policy standpoint, a boring first ministers’ meeting in the context of a continuous stream of boring First Ministers’ Meetings is good news. A dis- appointed media quickly catches on. Public expectations are recalibrated.)
Critically, where today we have ad hoc working groups mobilized in response to, or in the aftermath of, infre- quent First Ministers’ Meetings, the very act of standing up a permanent first min- isters’ process necessarily leads to the development of serious supporting bureaucratic structures. Multiple inter- governmental working groups and com- mittees are mobilized, led or driven in most cases by central agencies under the imprimatur of the clerks of the Privy Council and the provincial executive councils, given the sustained political interest of prime minister and premiers. Contrast this with the current intergov- ernmental culture in which the average Privy Council policy analyst, outside of the secondary intergovernmental affairs section of the shop, virtually never speaks to his or her analogues in the provinces. The minutiae of complex cross-jurisdictional issues are cycled through these intergovernmental work- ing groups in order to develop the policy bulwark that supports the deliverables of each first ministers’ meeting. The incre- mental character of these deliverables and the credible existence of a forward agenda in which there are subsequent incremental deliverables for which a given intergovernmental working group is responsible together result, in due time, in strong working relationships " indeed, in trust. As such intergovern- mental, bureaucratic trust matures, and as the interacting bureaucracies, ener- gized and protected by standing political interest (itself synergistically a function of the very existence of this important process), recognize the indivisibility of many of their most difficult policy files, all participating governments become, for all practical intents and purposes, locked into the process. A new federal- provincial paradigm governs. And with time, the incentives for defection from the process by any one player " even with changes in government " become increasingly small.
Where we today have little high- level follow-up on individual deliverables issuing from First Ministers’ Meetings, the combination of the forward agenda and the incre- mental deliverables would allow indi- vidual policy issues to regularly return to the negotiating table for further con- sideration by prime minister and pre- miers (and, as suggested, possibly First Nations and municipal representa- tives). After having considered a given issue or deliverable at a given first min- isters’ meeting, the prime minister and premiers would provide robust direc- tion for a future stream of largely bureaucratic work on that same issue, as well as for its return for airing at a future first ministers’ meeting. This to and fro or up-down-up-down political- bureaucratic feedback between first ministers’ meeting and working groups may repeat itself several times " that is, over the course of several First Ministers’ Meetings.
And it is this expectation of return to this elite table that greases the wheels of the intergovernmental, bureaucratic working groups and committees. Moreover, it is this same expectation of return that, far more meaningfully than the current regime of public reporting, lends itself to a serious form of political accountability for the various govern- ments. The head of government " prime minister or premier " is answerable no longer simply to the public (or to the public via Parliament or the provincial legislature), but to his political peers in the other governments. The incentives or demands for performance are high. Slowly but surely, real progress is made on major pan-Canadian policy files " just as one should expect in this complex country of ours.