The prime minister should put a western adviser in the thick of national decision-making, and also look for ways to build issue-based coalitions.
“[T]his Parliament and this government will be and needs to be focused on Canadians, and that means we need to work together, we need to listen to each other, we need to figure out the right path forward for every part of the country, and that is something that I am committed to doing … we’re going to continue to make sure that every part of this country sees its priorities reflected on what this government does even if we don’t have members of the government elected in those regions.”
When he addressed reporters in his first post-campaign news conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau struck a markedly different tone than in his election night speech to supporters. He acknowledged the very real challenges his government now faces as he prepares to meet a hung Parliament and remake a national cabinet without a single Member from Alberta and Saskatchewan.
The problem runs much deeper than seat count. The two provinces that most clearly turned their back on the prime minister are also the two provinces that have lately expressed the deepest frustration with the workings of the Canadian federation. The 2019 Confederation of Tomorrow survey shows that citizens in Alberta and Saskatchewan are among the least satisfied with how their province is being treated in the federation. When asked whether federalism has more advantages than disadvantages, only 33 percent of Albertans and Saskatchewanians agreed (strongly and somewhat combined). Moreover, a majority in each province (53 per cent in Saskatchewan and 56 per cent in Alberta) agrees that Western Canada gets so few benefits from being a part of Canada that it might as well go it alone. It is that underlying frustration that the prime minister must address, not solely the two empty seats around the cabinet table.
As counterintuitive as it might seem, the prime minister would probably do well, therefore, to respect the will of voters and refrain from appointing someone from those provinces to cabinet, as prime minister Stephen Harper did in 2008, when his party failed to elect a candidate in Newfoundland and Labrador. It would be incredibly difficult for a senator or a floor-crossing MP to earn the public legitimacy required for the appointment to be seen as anything more than tokenism. More promisingly, the prime minister should consider Western Canadian priorities, concerns and sentiments in making his cabinet appointments in portfolios that are critical to that region’s priorities. Put bluntly, new faces in key roles are needed.
In addition, the Prime Minister’s Office should now include a senior adviser for the Prairies with direct access to the prime minister. More sherpa than staffer, this individual’s authority and responsibilities would go well beyond the “regional desk officer,” the conventional array of relatively junior advisers who act as a conduit for the concerns of the regions for which they are responsible into the policy-making process. In contrast, this new position would provide counsel on the entire government agenda, as seen through the Prairie lens. A former public office holder with deep roots and networks in the Prairies who would undertake this assignment as public, rather than partisan, service would be a promising model. The key to success is to not regionalize Western concerns, but rather to put them at the centre of national decision-making.
The regional divisions made plain by the new electoral map probably also speak to a new approach to intergovernmental affairs. To make progress on almost any of the issues highlighted in his platform, the prime minister will not only need support beyond his own party in the Commons but also the collaboration of his provincial and territorial partners in the country. Expanding Pharmacare, addressing affordability, building the Trans Mountain pipeline and fighting climate change all have a significant intergovernmental component and will require agreement and input from premiers. But almost all the work of forging the public consensus needed to advance that policy agenda remains to be done, as the Liberal campaign focused more on the deficiencies of its political opponents than promoting the ideas of its own platform.
In the first few years of his government, the prime minister successfully built alliances on big issues along largely partisan lines, with many like-minded Liberal premiers sitting around the intergovernmental table. A full provincial election cycle later, that table looks markedly different and requires a wholly new approach: one that focuses on the specifics of a particular policy and builds “issue by issue” coalitions, rather than favouring a more partisan “us and them” approach to building a national agenda.
Focusing on issues might even give the federal government an edge that the campaign focus on personalities did not. While voters in Saskatchewan and Alberta support their premiers, they also support the principle of equalization, an active role of both orders of government in setting national policies, and the politics of compromise. Taking a more aggressive public education approach to counter misinformation on some of these policies could bring more voters to Ottawa’s view on the substance of the matter than forcing them to “pick a side” between their governments.
A final observation on the election results: it could be time to reconsider electoral reform in the context of Canadian federalism. Last week’s results expose very real regional divisions, but also exaggerate them. Liberals received support in Alberta, just as the NDP did in Saskatchewan and the Conservatives in Newfoundland and Labrador or Prince Edward Island, but that will not be reflected in the makeup of the new House. A more proportional system would ensure those voices are heard in their respective party caucuses in a way that the current system simply does not allow, and limit the appeal of a political strategy that pits one region against the other. Proponents of electoral reform often focus on the fairness argument to make their case, but it might be time to make the federalism case for it as well.
The prime minister won a sizeable plurality of seats, and the arithmetic of confidence in the new House of Commons is easy to calculate. But in an era of increasing policy interdependence between the two orders of government, it behooves any prime minister to look beyond partisan affinities to build coalitions around national projects. Trudeau’s success on that file will likely dictate the productivity and impact of the 43rd Parliament of Canada.
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