November 23, 2014
Martin Regg Cohn
Quebec-Ontario alliance trumps Stephen Harper snub
The emerging entente cordiale between Canada’s two biggest provinces underscores a vacuum of national leadership in Ottawa
Behold the bonhomie and amity between two premiers and their cabinets in Toronto this week: Seven months after Quebec’s spring election, the spectre of separatism has transmogrified into full-fledged federalism.
There’s a reason the Quebec-Ontario summit turned into a meeting of minds and ministers: Kathleen Wynne and Philippe Couillard are simpatico both in style and substance.
Beyond the good will, there are good works on offer:
Ontario and Quebec signed an unprecedented deal to swap 500 megawatts of electricity during peak periods by way of bartering. They compared notes on climate change. And they celebrated Ontario’s francophone face in a way that touched, viscerally, the visiting French Quebecers.
At ground level, it is a federalist fantasy come true. Together, they are laying the groundwork for a Central Canadian axis of power (sharing) that is both political and electrical — with environmental and electoral benefits.
But at another level — the federal level — their new entente cordiale between Canada’s two biggest provinces underscores a vacuum of national leadership in Ottawa. While the two premiers are partners, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands apart — a spectator among interlocutors.
On the eve of the Toronto summit, Harper delivered a bizarre snub to Wynne by refusing her overtures for a federal-provincial meeting. With her request unrequited, the spurned premier went public with their correspondence — pointedly asking why Canada’s biggest province, with 13 million people, can’t get federal face time.
Then she got down to business with Couillard — showing that where there is political will, there can be policy headway.
As noted in this space Thursday, the two provinces have agreed to swap generating capacity to complement each others’ seasonal peaks (Quebec’s greatest power consumption is during the winter heating season, while Ontario maxes out when air conditioner are turned up in summer heat). The 500-megawatt deal amounts to a large-sized power plant that Ontario will not have to build to cope with those seasonal peaks in future.
Beyond the substance, the deal has symbolic value: The era of electricity separatism in Ontario (which coincided with Quebec’s separatist political impulses) is coming to an end. Wynne has signalled that she wants both provinces to explore more trade in renewable energy at the right price. Both provinces have also doubled the reserve of standby electricity that can be acquired on short notice by either side.
Beyond the basics of buying and selling power, they will collaborate on the complexities of a cap and trade regime to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. Ontario has led the way in closing coal-fired generators but hasn’t taken the next step of imposing a price on carbon, while Quebec has repositioned itself as a clearinghouse for cap and trade auctions.
Despite the electoral risks, Ontario is increasingly confident that a less visible cap and trade regime for large industrial polluters — as opposed to a carbon tax that is more conspicuous at the consumer level — will be more politically palatable, and possibly inevitable. With the U.S. and China finally getting serious about reducing greenhouse gases, Wynne believes the tide is turning — and that the prime minister’s continued resistance to tougher emissions targets will leave him offside not only with the world, but other provinces.
Beyond Central Canada’s environmental entente, there is an emerging détente with Alberta under the leadership of its new premier, Jim Prentice. The early signals are that Prentice, who will be visiting his Ontario and Quebec counterparts within the next couple of weeks, may be more onside with carbon emissions as he seeks their support for an Energy East pipeline from Alberta.
The triangulation between Canada’s three most economically important provinces underscores the extent to which Harper is not only abdicating a leadership role but avoiding a conversational role. The last time he called up Wynne was to ask her (along with other premiers) to stay out of Quebec’s spring election (she did). Now she is close to Couillard the victor, yet closed out by Harper the avoider.
Not only do Harper and Wynne lack chemistry personally, they disagree on almost every policy — from pension enhancements to transit disbursements. By depriving her of a direct dialogue, Harper has made his churlishness a talking point.
Should a prime minister ignore Ontario, which holds more federal seats than most other provinces combined, while making time for other premiers? Can Harper blackball a premier with a recent electoral mandate yet still be a prudent steward of the national interest?
The fruits of the Quebec-Ontario friendship show that good politics can be good governance. The absence of an Ottawa-Ontario dialogue raises the risk that grudge politics will lead to bad governance.
When Quebec and Ontario work together, Couillard argues, Canada wins. If Ottawa and Ontario don’t work together — or talk to each other — it’s self-evidently a missed opportunity. And Canada inevitably loses.
Perhaps it now falls to the premier of Quebec — having becalmed separatist impulses at home — to play the role of federalist peacemaker by bringing Queen’s Park and Ottawa together again.