What's on the menu at 24 Sussex

Premiers have a long wish list, but little chance of getting it filled

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The Gazette, Friday, January 11, 2008

Then there was the time that Richard Hatfield showed up for a dinner at 24 Sussex Dr., ostentatiously carrying a brown paper bag across the doorstep.

"What's in the bag, Mr. Hatfield?" reporters yelled at him.

"Fiddleheads," he replied, explaining he wanted something from New Brunswick on the menu for the meeting of first ministers.

Menus for first ministers' dinners normally reflect the regional tastes and products of the country. Alberta beef. Atlantic salmon. P.E.I. potatoes. Deserts from Quebec. Ontario and British Columbia wines. And so on.

"Some provinces," said one senior federal official yesterday, "get annoyed if they're only in the desert and not in the entrée."

Stephen Harper might have another idea for tonight's dinner at the prime minister's residence: cold turkey.

The provinces are arriving with their usual agendas. They want more money from the feds - money for the forestry and manufacturing sectors hit hard by the double whammy of the rising loonie and slowing demand in the United States.

Which was why Harper was pre-empting their demands yesterday by flying to the lumber town of Tracyville, N.B., to announce a $1-billion federal relief package for one and two-industry towns.

Ottawa will pay the money to the provinces - $10 million each and then on a per-capita basis - which will use it for hard-pressed municipalities.

And, of course, it won't be enough. It never is.

Ottawa has been low-balling expectations for today's meeting, simply because of the nature and timing of it. It's a first ministers' meeting, rather than a full dress first ministers' conference, like the one on health care in 2004 when the boys carved up $41 billion in new federal funding, and never even said thanks on their way out the door. No cameras, no entourages, no spin doctors working the press room.

The spinners will be standing outside in the cold with the media, and the premiers won't be sending them BlackBerry updates from the table. That would be bad form.

Then there's the day, and the time of day of the meeting. Friday, when the big Saturday papers close their pages early. Late Friday night, when everything but the front page has long gone.

Harper isn't looking for headlines out of this meeting. In any event, the news of the day could well be David Johnston's recommendations on the scope of a public inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber affair.

The prime minister received his report late on Wednesday and, once it is translated, intends to release it, with his own statement, either today or Monday.

Which isn't to say Harper is blowing off the provincial and territorial premiers by having them over to the house on a Friday.

The meeting is scheduled to last four hours - a two-hour working session, followed by dinner.

The last first minister's meeting, just after Harper took office in February 2006, was a perfunctory two hours. The Prime Minister's Office says Harper has wanted a meeting for some time, but with all the provincial elections last year, couldn't find a good moment.

The working session will be the premiers' opportunity to recite their shopping lists, doing what's expected of them to promote and defend the interests of their provinces.

Then, after the dining-room table is reset for dinner, Harper wants a discussion on "the functioning of the federation."

"In other words," one senior PMO official says, "his message is, 'I'm here to listen, what do you want to tell me?' "

Jean Charest and Dalton McGuinty struck a Quebec-Ontario alliance at a meeting in Ottawa yesterday, comparing their shopping lists and making common ground.

This is an obvious fit, since the two provinces account for the lion's share of manufacturing in Canada. Charest also wants to talk about the soaring loonie, but the Bank of Canada won't be at the meeting. There are only two options, a floating exchange rate or a fixed one, and a fixed one is a non-starter. End of discussion.

But Charest is bringing another idea - a proposal for a high-speed rail link in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, an idea that has been kicking around for the last 30 years.

Hey, good for the environment, good for Bombardier. But probably a non-starter in the real world of building a dedicated track along CN's right of way (Via Rail owns rolling stock, but not the rails it runs on).

Nevertheless, anything that casts Quebec in a leadership role in the federation is a good day for Charest, since defending Quebec's interests in Canada is a primordial for any Quebec premier.

Bon appétit!

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