CSPG: Working together: Parliamentary, cabinet, caucus, and/or representative collaboration across the levels in Canada

Article 6 / 11 , Vol 43 No. 2 (Summer)

CSPG: Working together: Parliamentary, cabinet, caucus, and/or representative collaboration across the levels in Canada


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On January 17, 2020, the Canadian Study of Parliament Group held a seminar entitled “Working Together: Parliamentary, Cabinet, Caucus, and/or Representative Collaboration Across the Levels in Canada” to hear from academics and politicians on the challenges and opportunities involved in cooperation and collaboration between jurisdictions.

Academic Perspectives

The seminar began with a panel of academics, who each offered observations on what kinds of conditions drive or impede intergovernmental collaboration and why true collaboration in Canada is so rare.

Jennifer Wallner, an associate professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, spoke first. Her work focuses on, among other things, intergovernmental relations from a comparative perspective. Ms. Wallner drew from her recent experience in the Intergovernmental Affairs Secretariat at the Privy Council Office to enrich her presentation, which advocated for investments in increasing intergovernmental relations.

She began by arguing that cooperation can lead to significant benefits but also stressed that there are significant obstacles to federal-provincial engagement in Canada. First, there are few formal structures in Canada that encourage intergovernmental collaboration. Second, governments often face a collective action problem – interests differ from province to province and shift depending on elections – that is aggravated by Canada’s size and regional diversity. As a result, Canadian governments engage in what she refers to as “ostrich federalism,” ignoring their counterparts entirely.

To overcome these obstacles, Ms. Wallner made three recommendations: first, making intergovernmental interactions more predictable and consistent, including fixed, regular first minister’s meetings; second, the establishment of “inter-legislative councils” to connect provincial and federal legislators and eliminate the executive monopoly on intergovernmental relations; and third, mechanisms to give legislators more insight into, and scrutiny over, executive-level federalism.

Noura Karazivan, an associate professor of Public Law at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Law, spoke next. She focused on the claim among some constitutional scholars that federal-provincial cooperation requires protection by the courts. Picking up on Ms. Wallner’s observations, Ms. Karazivan observed that intergovernmental agreements in Canada are not binding and can thus be undone anytime any party changes their mind. Their voluntary nature – a reflection of the sovereignty of individual governments and the inability of one to impose upon or control another – makes them unpredictable and, from a policy perspective, unattractive.

According to Ms. Karazivan, some scholars argue that “cooperative federalism” – an ideal to which the Supreme Court often refers when adjudicating jurisdictional disputes – requires that governments be bound by the agreements they make. As such, there should be a duty of loyalty or good faith that prevents governments who are involved in cooperative inter-jurisdictional policy schemes from withdrawing suddenly or without negotiations. This would enhance both the predictability and attractiveness of intergovernmental cooperation.

Ms. Karazivan, however, cautioned against this approach as it would be seeking a judicial solution to a political problem. She also questioned whether a “duty of good faith” could ever be defined or applied in a clear and consistent manner and whether it would be compatible with a constitution that prevents legislatures from binding each other or themselves in the future. Ultimately, she suggested that judicial intervention in intergovernmental agreements could be something all parties would regret.

Daniel Béland, a professor in the Department of Political Science at McGill University and Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, used two examples of intergovernmental negotiations to demonstrate that policy outcomes in the world of federal-provincial politics are highly dependent on partisan shifts at the provincial level.

First, Professor Béland looked at the recent history of Canada Pension Plan reform. The CPP can only be reformed with the support of two-thirds of the provinces, representing two-thirds of the population. This makes inter-governmental collaboration essential, which would in turn suggest that successful CPP reform is nearly impossible. Mr. Béland noted, however, that it was reformed in 2016 by the Trudeau government and he attributes this to positive relations between the federal government, the New Democratic Party government in Alberta, and the Liberal Party government in Ontario.

Mr. Béland contrasted this with the conversation around equalization payments, comparing Prime Minister Harper’s successful attempt to get provincial buy-in for his changes to the equalization formula with Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to make changes unilaterally. The former, he argues, was received without political resistance, while the latter has aggravated poor relations with Alberta, Manitoba, and other provinces, even prompting talk of a referendum in Alberta on the topic.

In discussion after the panel, Ms. Wallner added that there is also a difference in the communication on CPP and equalization, which she argues affects the likelihood of collaboration. While the CPP is seen as a net benefit for all Canadians, most conversations around equalization describe it as zero-sum, with winners and losers.

Political Perspectives

The second panel of the day drew from a wealth of direct experience among its participants on the politics, practicalities, and possibilities of modern intergovernmental relations in Canada.

Graham Steele served as a member of the Nova Scotia legislature from 2001 to 2013 and as Minister of Finance, Minister of Acadian Affairs, and Minister of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism during that time. He offered several observations on why executive-level intergovernmental collaboration is so challenging. First, ministers rarely start with direct experience in their portfolios; as such, they need time to acclimate before they can even identify areas of potential cooperation. Second, they are representatives first and ministers second – they only have so much bandwidth in their day to add more responsibilities, particularly when they may have no effect on their future electability. Third, ministers rarely hold their portfolio for long enough to master it, and negotiations can be impossible when your negotiating partner changes abruptly. Fourth, personal relationships play an enormous role – some kind of good rapport is necessary to get anything done, which cannot be easily established.

Mr. Steele stated that, over his time as a minister, he attended nine or 10 “FPTs,” or annual meetings of federal, provincial, and territorial ministers with similar portfolios. He found that the formal portions of the meetings are pre-determined and thus not very useful, but that the conversations that took place over dinner, or during breaks, have far more value. These were the times to build the kinds of relationships that were necessary for success. Mr. Steele pointed to examples of this success – including the harmonization of provincial securities regulations – as the product of hard work and dedicated leadership from specific ministers with longevity, experience, and vision, who built the relationships and were trusted by their counterparts.

Deborah Matthews, who served as a member of the Ontario legislature from 2003 to 2018, spoke next. She held several cabinet positions, including Minister of Health and Long-Term Care, President of the Treasury Board, and Deputy Premier. Like Mr. Steele, Ms. Matthews found that the formal aspects of FPTs rarely advanced any policy file, but informal meetings and conversations around the meeting were extremely helpful. She described them as, at times, a “therapy group”, allowing ministers the opportunity to speak about their challenges and their portfolios with peers.

Ms. Matthews argued that intergovernmental collaboration can work, but that as a minister you must be clear-eyed about the other parties involved, their goals and interests, and what might be driving them. She said that communication between ministers is crucial and that, when united, a group of ministers from different provinces can achieve far more in a negotiation than they could alone. She recalled that negotiations with pharmaceutical companies were much easier when provinces were aligned in their interests and positions.

Last, Ms. Matthews spoke about joint cabinet meetings, in which cabinets from two or more provinces meet together. She argued that they offer an opportunity for ministers to get a deep and detailed sense of the issues in another province and were immensely valuable.

Ian Brodie, author of At The Centre of Government, associate professor at the University of Calgary, and former Chief of Staff to Stephen Harper, spoke last. He reiterated Mr. Béland’s assertion that political parties are a significant factor in the success or failure of intergovernmental collaboration, but noted that even between nominally aligned parties, like the Liberal Party in Quebec and the federal Liberal Party, there can be significant ideological divergence. He observed that intergovernmental relations have always been fraught, focusing in particular on recent tensions and challenges in the relationship between Alberta and the federal government.

Ultimately, Mr. Brodie pointed to two elements that make cooperation – or at least co-existence – possible. The first is the federal government’s financial capacity. According to Professor Brodie, one can never discount the importance of “a nice round billion” for a provincial premier, and the political weight this might carry with their constituents. That is, a significant infusion of federal funds to a province may strongly influence a premier’s desire to cooperate with Ottawa. Second, the presence of pre-existing, long-standing ties between representatives from different levels of government matters. He noted, for example, that many people involved in the Conservative Party during the Harper era have since left Ottawa and entered provincial politics – like Premier Jason Kenney – and that the network that these politicians and staff developed during their time in power will increase collaboration and cooperation in the near future (at least among politically aligned governments).