So are we pawns, or are we players?
Last week, three of the four governments of Atlantic provinces — New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador — made side-deals on health care with the federal governments.
The deals set an annual increase to health care spending for the next decade — three per cent or the base rate of GDP — and offer differing additional amounts for mental health services and home care.
For New Brunswick, the deal will see $125.1 million in funds for home-care spending and $104.3 million in additional mental-health spending starting in 2017 and running for the next decade. The comparable numbers in Nova Scotia are $157 million in home care and $130.8 million towards mental health, while in Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s $87.7 million for home care and $73 million for mental-health services.
The deals — Newfoundland and Labrador’s deal announced late in the afternoon on the Friday before Christmas Eve — mean the three provinces have broken with the united front that all Canadian provinces had at the beginning of last week, when they turned down a federal offer similar to what the three Atlantic provinces later individually accepted.
Prince Edward Island is still keeping its options open (and, some say, still negotiating).
In Newfoundland and Labrador’s case, it’s easy to see why the government took the deal. Simply put, the province can’t afford the health care it already has in place, and the government needs any additional cash (and goodwill in Ottawa) it can possibly find.
It’s fair to say the other two provinces were in an equal rush to secure funding.
But if it’s understandable, it’s also a sign that unanimity among provinces is a very shallow pool: New Brunswick jumped ship just three days after talks with the federal government broke off. Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia made their deals four days after the breakdown. So much for the united provincial front.
The cause of that failed unanimity? Perhaps the fact that the 10 provinces are very different sizes and have both very different needs and very different budgetary positions. It means that the federal government will always have an opportunity to pick off individual provinces when it is negotiating overall federal program funding.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
There is another clause to the deal that makes the Atlantic governments look less like cash-strapped patsies, willing to take whatever the federal government was offering; for all three deals, the federal government has agreed that, if other provinces reach better deals or gain additional benefits from future negotiations, the federal government will add the same benefits to the Atlantic deals.
But that only serves to underline the point: the federal government clearly sees value in breaking up the united front of the provinces. Think about it: the feds actually win nothing from the current deals if they also promise to top up those deals to whatever anyone else gets.
That means the feds must think that the erosion of that united front weakens everyone else’s negotiating position.
Some other provinces clearly agree. “These deals represent massive cuts to federal health funding that will hurt mental health, home care and hospitals and will impact every Canadian,” Manitoba’s Health Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in a statement on Friday. “The federal government is taking a unilateral approach to health funding and attempting to divide provinces while using Canadians as bargaining chips. That is shameful.”
And that takes me back to the question at the very beginning of this column: pawn or player?
My suspicion is that, despite the claims that the three Atlantic governments might make in their own defence, it’s the former, rather than the later.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @Wangersky.