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Lobby groups turn to provinces under Harper's 'classical federalism'

Published: Friday, 05/25/2012 1:52 pm EDT
Last Updated: Friday, 05/25/2012 2:34 pm EDT

Lobby groups are engaging more with the provinces and territories on national policy issues, strategically picking them off for support under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s brand of federalism, lobbyists say.

Prime Minister Harper has shifted Canada's approach to federal-provincial governance from the former Liberal government's brand of “executive federalism” to Harper's more traditional “classical federalism,” lobbyists and experts say, which carefully respects sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution and their definitions of federal and provincial responsibilities.

They point to Harper's changes to the health transfers, the GST and taxation, environmental and energy regulation, as well as fewer first ministers' conferences, as examples of the Prime Minister's classical approach.

As lobbyists take a harder look to the provinces for leadership on national issues, they must be strategic about how they approach first ministers, they said.

Approaching the provinces collectively, through the the Council of the Federation, is problematic, Dan Kelly, senior vice president of legislative affairs at the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), said in an interview.

“It sounds good in concept, and it’s important in some instances, but it is fraught with problems, and the challenge, of course, is that trying to achieve anything by national consensus really, really, becomes difficult,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the CFIB rarely looks to lobby the provinces collectively. “It’s not a bad strategy, but we found it’s far more effective to go province by province, and try to pick them off,” he said.

When the CFIB is looking for support on issues affecting its members, he said, it targets the right provinces.

“The best way we found to achieve this, and I think advocacy groups have been doing this for years, not just us, is to try to get one province on side to sign onto your agenda item, and then use that to try to either encourage or embarrass other governments to do the same,” Kelly said.

“The more recent approach, though, is somewhere in the middle, and that is to get groups of provinces to do things,” he said.

Kelly said this approach has been used to lobby for interprovincial trade agreements, which “can be helpful because that puts pressure on other governments to not be outside of that agreement.”

The CFIB also issues report cards that grade the provinces on issues such as red tape reduction or regulatory reform, causing some provinces to ask the group what they can do to improve their rating, Kelly said.

Tim Powers, a Conservative supporter and vice president of Summa Strategies in Ottawa, said he has worked with several provinces on behalf of clients to advance issues at the national level, “using the alignment of different provinces and using more than one province to push along some commercial issues of interest.”

Powers said that, under the Conservative government, lobby groups need to take a more campaign-like approach, pulling in broad support provincially and federally.

Earnscliffe Strategy Group consultant Geoff Norquay, also a Conservative supporter who wrote an article in the December-January issue of Policy Options about Harper's classical federalist approach, said he has since “reversed or modified” that view.

Norquay told The Lobby Monitor he believes Harper has taken a traditional federalist approach to some issues, such as health care and solving the fiscal imbalance.

There are other issues where Harper is taking a more “hands-on” approach to working with the provinces, such as labour force management initiatives like the government's changes to Employment Insurance and immigration, Norquay said.

He said the government is engaged with the provinces on Employment Insurance, a federal responsibility, work credentials, a provincial responsibility, and immigration, a joint responsibility.

Kelly said the CFIB is discussing the shortage of labour and skills with the federal government. The federal government can make changes to Employment Insurance and it has the “check book power” to hand over dollars to the provinces for training programs, he said.

Lobby groups that were working towards a new health accord with billions in additional funding—a 2014 renewal of former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin's 10-year health accord—were thwarted by Harper's classical federalist announcement on transfers, Norquay said.

The Conservative government said last year it will continue to increase transfers to the province by six per cent per year through 2016-2017, but following that, increases will be tied to economic growth including inflation, which is now about three to four per cent. The increases will be guaranteed not to drop below below three per cent.

Norquay said the Harper government announcement essentially communicated a message to health care lobby groups to take their issues to the provinces. “I think it completely cuts them off at the pass,” Norquay said.

Norquay said the Tory government is not likely to entertain meetings with groups to discuss health care because “they’ve got nothing to say.”

The Canadian Medical Association (CMA), with over 76,000 members, is finding it difficult to engage with the federal government on health care, president John Haggie said in an interview with The Lobby Monitor.

The CMA discussed health issues with four officials from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on Dec. 13, 2012, and Haggie communicated with Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq on March 19, communication reports filed with the commissioner of lobbying show.

Haggie said the CMA continues to send letters to the government offering to work towards changes to Canada’s health care system.

The CMA is also working with the Council of the Federation in two working groups on health. A report on the work of those groups will be released in July, Haggie said.

Norquay said groups that continue to lobby the federal government on health care haven’t “smelled the coffee.” He said “the answer for those who wish to lobby on health care is to focus on individual provinces.”

Lobbyists may want to rethink their asks of the federal government for national strategies, Powers said.

“The Prime Minister’s embraced some funding for different health strategies, mental health being one of them, but I think there’s caution,” Powers said. “We used to counsel against asking for strategies, because what strategies sounds like when you’re a government person is somebody asking you for a blank cheque for you to do X, Y and Z, with no specific outcomes.”

Since 2006, the government has indicated it is less likely to get involved in “talk shop” policy debates or support national strategies that are not outcome-oriented, Powers said.

The CFIB has much the same attitude towards national strategies, Kelly said. Most often, national strategies mean bigger government and more spending, and the CFIB is not in favour of either, he said.

Kelly said it remains important for the CFIB to take some issues that may have a provincial angle to the federal government.

“To try to get the federal government on side is still very useful. Even if they're not able to do something, they can sometimes give good advice in terms of raising these issues, or they can themselves try to use their levers, usually financial levers, to try to encourage some change,” Kelly said.

Norquay said there remain areas of health policy where the government has not abdicated a leadership role. It continues to fund health and genomics research and the Foundation for Innovation, as well as research into diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

“For lobby groups that want to see those kinds of initiatives take place, sure, the federal government is open to those kinds of things, but, at the same time, it is the provinces that deliver health care,” Norquay said. “Lobby groups have to be as—no, more—attentive to provincial governments and to provincial priorities as they have been in the past."

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