Despite recent rumblings from Western Canada about the federal transfer payment system, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he does not anticipate major changes to the program even after it expires in 2014.
Harper made the comments while in Edmundston to make a forestry industry announcement on Friday while on his first visit to New Brunswick since voters elected a majority Conservative government last year.
“There is always a debate on equalization,” Harper said. “I have never seen it stop at any point in my political life.
“We are in discussions with the provinces about their various preferences, on which, provinces are not of a single mind.”
He added: “I don’t anticipate major changes to the program as we move forward.”
Harper also met privately with Premier David Alward where they discussed potential changes to the federal transfer payment system.
Alward said the federal government has a constitutional obligation to maintain the program.
“It is something that is certainly entrenched in the constitution,” Alward said. “Something that is very important for all New Brunswickers to know and all Canadians to know is that at some point in time in our history as a country every province has benefited from equalization and every Canadian pays into equalization.
“It’s a vitally important program and I am pleased to hear the prime minister’s comments today.”
In 2011-12, Ottawa transferred about $15 billion in equalization to the provinces with weaker fiscal capacity.
New Brunswick gets about $1.6 billion annually through the wealth-sharing program that has been in effect in Canada since 1957. Quebec and Ontario get the lion’s share of the equalization pie.
This week, a new coalition of think-tanks and not-for-profit organizations called for a national debate on the future of the multibillion-dollar program.
The think-tank coalition says the whole issue of equalization needs to be placed on the national agenda. The groups say policy-makers must address the imbalances created by the current system.
Coalition members are: the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, Reseau Liberté-Quebec, Montreal Economic Institute, The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, The Frontier Centre for Public Policy and The Manning Centre for Building Democracy.
Alward refuted claims that there is reluctance by provinces that benefit from equalization to garner economic success in fear of loss of equalization dollars.
“I know there is some dialogue or debate taking place right now, “Alward said. “I certainly hope to see a day when New Brunswick is a net contributor to the equalization program, but the program now allows New Brunswick to be able to provide a similar level of service that other Canadians receive.”
Equalization wasn’t the only topic discussed by Alward and Harper on Friday.
The premier said he and the prime minister had several opportunities throughout the day to talk one-on-one about the province’s priorities.
“One of the positive things is that we have an opportunity for dialogue,” Alward said. “I have had a chance to meet with him many times and discuss with him things that aren’t always easy.”
Alward said Friday’s discussion was geared towards provincial economic development and a call for investment in research and development, but also touched on a number of long-standing issues facing the province – including the refurbishment of the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station.
“Other projects that have been on our plate for a while I have had the opportunity to bring up,” Alward said. “You can be sure Lepreau will be brought up. It’s brought up any time I have an opportunity to meet with the prime minister.
“I certainly hope to bring up the potential of a pipeline as well. That is something that could have a very positive impact on New Brunswick in the long term.”
Momentum behind a bid to bring Alberta oil to Saint John for processing has grown with the support of federal politicians and a public call by Alward for a pan-Canadian pipeline stretching from the West Coast to the province’s Port City.
Alward has continued to publicly push the idea.
Harper didn’t comment Friday on either the Lepreau refurbishment or a proposed pipeline.
Alward also said there was not much discussion with Harper in regards to the proposed new health transfer payment system.
In December, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty unveiled a health-funding plan that runs to 2024.
Under the new funding formula, Alberta would be the big winner, getting an extra $1 billion at the expense of almost all of the other provinces – including New Brunswick.
Alward said the provinces will together approach the matter again in federal-provincial meetings slated for July.
“The health transfers, we have had the chance to talk about several times,” he said. “The health accord is one of those things where we have had disagreements on where things need to be going, but that is part of the process.”