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How to spend billions in the twinkling of an eye

Posted by ealboim under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Campaign strategy, Election 2011 Faculty links

Elly Alboim

Staggering is the only word for the windfall Canada’s provinces received this morning. It totals in the billions of dollars. It also says volumes about the way politics are conducted in Canada.

Under a ten year deal signed by Paul Martin, Ottawa’s health transfers to the provinces have been growing by 6% annually –it’s called the 6% escalator for obvious reasons. The deal is due to end in 2014 and everyone had been anticipating a set of very difficult federal-provincial negotiations. Well apparently, thanks to the federal election campaign, those talks have ended before they started.

This morning, Michael Ignatieff issued a open letter on health policy and committed the Liberals to continuing the 6% escalator. He did that just five days after issuing his platform which did not have this commitment in it. In fact, it said among other things that “while provinces and territories are struggling with escalating costs, it’s far from clear that more money is the only solution.”

Following that, and again this morning, Jim Flaherty committed to an extra two years of the escalator. That commitment was not in his party’s platform that was being released literally as he spoke to reporters. The nearest it came was to say :” we will work collaboratively with the provinces and the territories to renew the Health Accord and to continue reducing waiting times.”

By coincidence perhaps, the National Post today featured three columnists speaking to the health care issue. Scott Reid, my friend and colleague, suggested in that column that the Liberals commit to the 6%. As scientists say, sometimes the hardest thing to prove between coincident events is causality.

What is clear is that the 6% commitments were either too minor (maybe they forgot) or too important (maybe they wanted to surprise) to put in the platforms of the two parties that can form government three and a half weeks from now.

Or maybe, and of course most likely, no one wanted to touch the third rail of Canadian politics at the start of the campaign and once it was put into play, no one could afford to be off-side. So despite all the claims about fiscal prudence, they threw billions of dollars at the problem in the twinkling of an eye.

In every provincial capital of Canada this morning, premiers and finance ministers must be loving this new federal-provincial process. They don’t have to promise reform or accountability, they don’t have to worry about any new federal conditionality over the transfers. They just need to hope for frequent federal elections.

An interesting way to run a country.

Elly Alboim is an associate professor of journalism and a former CBC TV Parliamentary Bureau Chief.