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Opinion | Want to be Canada’s prime minister? It will help if you are … – Waterloo Region Record

Trudeau will have to handle Danielle Smith with care, writes Geoff Stevens.

Trudeau will have to handle Danielle Smith with care, writes Geoff Stevens.

Ottawa may help provinces, but it will want to see action on health care, writes Geoff Stevens.

By Geoff Stevens

Mon., Dec. 26, 20223 min. read

Twenty-five years ago, when Conservative Robert Stanfield was leader of the official opposition, he went on an open-line radio program in Toronto.

Question: “Why is a fine man like yourself, who is wealthy with a lovely family and now a grandchild, bothering his head running for a thankless job like prime minister of Canada?”

Stanfield: “Well, I guess you have to be a little crazy, ma’am. It helps a little anyway.”

In 1972, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals were in power. John Turner was minister of finance. His budget that spring called for revenues of $19.8 billion, expenditures of $21.7 billion, and a whopping (for that innocent era) deficit of $1.9 billion. For comparison purposes, the 2021-22 deficit, as set out in this year’s budget, is $113.8 billion — roughly five times the total spending in Turner’s budget.

Responsibility for some of the dramatic increases in recent years can, of course, be laid at the doorstep of the pandemic. But taking pandemic-related spending out of the equation, it is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that the government has grown from a mom-and-pop operation into a Walmart — a warehouse-scale bureaucracy that today employs twice as many public servants (319,000) as there were total inhabitants in the Ottawa-Gatineau metropolitan area in 1972.

Population growth, ever greater demands for government services and inflation have been factors. Add to the tab the extraordinary cost of items no one had dreamed of back in 1972. Just one (extreme) example: Justin Trudeau will soon be spending — “investing,” as the Liberals prefer — $25 billion a year on its climate change agenda; his father could run the entire government for that sum 25 years ago.

Peering ahead into 2023, the two big political issues are familiar and immediate: regional alienation and the distribution of the nation’s wealth within the federation. When Preston Manning and his Reform party appeared on the national scene in 1987, their cry was “The West Wants In!” The cry now from Reform’s heirs, Danielle Smith and her United Conservative Party government is “The West Wants Out!” (At least Alberta does, according to Smith’s Sovereignty Act.)

In or out? Both cries are pleas for recognition and respect from a region that thinks it gets short shrift in national deliberations. Smith’s willingness to provoke a confrontation with Ottawa may have more to do with her uphill struggle to win re-election in next spring’s Alberta election than with constitutional reality, but her desperation makes her dangerous. Trudeau will have to handle her with care.

As to the national wealth, some provinces, including Ontario, are running surpluses while Ottawa is struggling with a huge deficit. You’d never know it from the provinces’ demands for a major transfusion under the Canada Health Act — with no strings attached. The feds will put more money on the table, but with strings. It wants accountability, evidence that the money is spent for its intended purpose and achieves its desired effect.

Hypothetically, if Ontario were to receive additional transfers to train more nurses in order to reduce wait times in hospital emergency departments, and if — this could never happen, of course — the money went to build highways across the Greenbelt, Doug Ford would be in deep do-do with his benefactors in Ottawa. They might even cut his allowance next year.

My mistake: In last week’s column, I identified Gilles Duceppe as leader of the Bloc Québécois and dean of the House of Commons. Wrong on both counts. Yves Blanchet is the leader of the Bloc. The dean is the Bloc’s Louis Plamondon. Duceppe is retired from politics. Thanks to the multiple readers who caught my gaffes.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens is an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail. He welcomes comments at