FREDERICTON – Announcing millions of dollars in highway funding on Monday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn’t need a steamroller to make his point about how co-operative federalism can work. New Brunswick’s financial gain comes as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland continue to battle Ottawa over equalization transfers.
Harper didn’t directly address whether the funding was also a message to New Brunswick’s neighbouring provinces. But he did say, “this shows what Ottawa and the provinces can achieve when they embrace the true spirit of federalism and openness.”
In fact, Monday’s infrastructure announcement – $207 million over the next 10 years – was nothing new. The work was announced last March when Bernard Lord’s Conservative government was still in power. But Harper’s response to whether this was new money had a couple more co-operation messages.
“I compliment Premier (Shawn) Graham for working co-operatively to get this announcement finalized, get on with work this summer and I always think it’s best when governments work together.”
Graham denied his government was being used to make a point to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. “I’m prepared to accept the criticism, because at the end of the day, we’re producing results and those results mean New Brunswickers are seeing their interests put at the forefront rather than political interests,” he said.
Andy Scott, the Liberal MP for Fredericton who was at the event, said “partisanship has no place in governments working together.” He said cynical people might construe Monday’s announcement as a snub to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. “My sense is it didn’t hurt to be able to position this relationship as against others.”
For the past several months, the premiers of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland have been battling with Harper over changes to the equalization program and how money is allocated to so-called “have-not” provinces.
Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University, said “I think this kills a couple of birds with one stone and one of them is to recognize the quiet co-operative approach of the provincial government of New Brunswick.”
Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Halifax-based think tank, Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the federal government has recently passed a good news budget that will mean plenty of announcements across the country – including in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Still, he said: “It wouldn’t surprise me if the timing (for Monday’s announcement) wasn’t convenient and it moved from a junior minister to the prime minister.”
Michael Baker, Nova Scotia’s finance minister, said in a phone interview that that he was pleased Harper was recognizing each of the provinces have unique requirements, whether they are infrastructure or equalization. “I hope he will do the same thing for Nova Scotia,” he added.
Baker added he couldn’t recall when Harper last visited his province to make a funding announcement, but that it hadn’t happened in the last few months.
Graham said he’s taken a “diplomatic approach” to working with Ottawa. “I’m happy to see today that approach is starting to pay dividends. Each premier will bring his own respective strategies to the table. My approach here in New Brunswick is different than other premiers.
“I’ve received some criticism. Some people would like to see me be more aggressive in working with Stephen Harper.”
But Graham also said: “I’m the only premier in the confederation that is asking for less from Ottawa to break that cycle of dependency.”
Besides money for roads, Graham said he’d extracted a promise from Harper that the federal clerk of the privy council will work on infrastructure and program investments with the provincial deputy minister responsible for New Brunswick’s self sufficiency agenda. One of Graham’s election platforms was to make the province self-sufficient in 25 years.