Faux-knee wars

Ending a months long cold war between Ottawa and Queen’s Park, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Kathleen Wynne have finally agreed to meet. The meeting, which is unlikely to produce anything beyond familiar platitudes about “working together in the national interest” and “cooperating on behalf of all Ontarians and all Canadians”, will take place at an undisclosed location later this week, and comes after several formal requests from the Premier.

Many commentators, in print and on social media, have expressed outrage on Wynne’s behalf, lamenting the prime minister’s refusal to meet the leader of Canada’s largest province. The Star’s Robert Benzie, to take one example, has been especially lachrymose, writing on December 4th:

The cold war between Ottawa and Ontario is so bad that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent more time with Russian President Vladimir Putin this year than Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Political observers are understandably upset that the prime minister has yet to meet premier of Canada’s largest province. Fair enough. But missing from such indignation, it seems to me, has been any awareness or acknowledgement of the ways in which this “cold war” has politically served Kathleen Wynne. Just as it has been in Stephen Harper’s interest to ignore Wynne’s titular entreaties – by snubbing a Liberal premier of Ontario he gets to look tough to his base – it has been in hers to have such gestures ignored.

Among the most valuable political cards a Liberal premier has in her pocket (particularly when facing left wing opposition to her planned privatization and cuts and a Conservative federal government) is an anti-Ottawa animus. So long as Wynne is able to portray her government as a progressive bulwark against the barbarians at the gates, she is on relatively safe and convenient political terrain. Since this phoney war has served to reinforce exactly that narrative, one imagines she and her advisors have been quite content to be publicly outraged and privately chuffed at Harper’s failure to pick up the phone.

In any federal system such as ours, it’s only right and proper to expect, even demand, meetings between representatives at different levels of government (the Canadian system, in which provinces have tremendously vast jurisdiction, only makes this more imperative, and it bears worth adding that Stephen Harper has proven an exceptionally bad example of how to conduct intergovernmental relations). But, so long as such meetings are informal – that is, so long as they only happen at the whims of competing political leaders –  we can expect them to remain pawns in the eternal federalist game of chess.

Only institutionalized meetings, in which prime ministers and premiers were compelled to meet by convention, will ever put these phoney wars to rest.

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