The Harris Centre at Memorial University issued a report on the number of federal public servants working in Newfoundland and Labrador.
With a Liberal administration in Ottawa and with a provincial Conservative government that enjoyed shooting at foreign enemies, the whole argument about federal presence was a big deal.
Tom Marshall was intergovernmental affairs minister at the time. He read a statement in the House of Assembly the day the Harris Centre report appeared.
The funny thing is, the number of federal public servants was actually increasing at the time. Figures from the federal treasury board show the number of federal public servants in each province each year since 2000.
The provincial government position was based on the idea that each province has a fundamental right to a share of federal spending. Newfoundland and Labrador was supposedly getting the shaft because other places, like say the bits of Ontario and Quebec around Ottawa had a supposedly disproportionate amount of federal spending going on there.
A second report was supposed to explain what was going on in the federal public service. It didn’t. Instead, the second report – issued in 2006 – carried on with the argument that the province was entitled to a fair share of federal spending. According to the report, the province had lost federal public servants out of proportion to all the other provinces.
The local business community went along with the provincial government’s argument. Surprise, surprise.
Now look up at the table. It includes federal public servants, including federally-appointed judges. It excludes ministerial political staff, RCMP members, and Canadian Forces members.
Notice that the number of federal public servants climbed up but since 2009, it’s been dropping every year.
Dropping every year and there hasn’t been a peep from any provincial politician. Business community? Dead silence.
There’s basically one reason why there’s been nothing about this issue for almost a decade. The biggest one is personally partisan. The provincial Conservatives and their allies in the business community used the issue as a political weapon. Squeezing federal cash for the provincial government was part of the provincial Conservative - i.e. Danny Williams’ - strategy for the first few years they held office.
After 2008 and Williams’ humiliating defeat in the ABC campaign, he just dropped the war on Ottawa as a serious pursuit. After Williams left, his hand-picked successors have played at being at odds with the federal government, but fundamentally their hearts aren’t in it.
That’s just as well because the whole idea that the province is entitled to a share of federal spending is preposterous. You can tell it is preposterous because every time someone inside the province, like say the folks in Labrador, ever try to lay claim to a share of provincial government spending, politicians like Tom Marshall toll them to eff off and stop trying to destroy the province.
The whole idea of an entitlement to federal cash is also a reminder that the current provincial administration has been, for the most part, unable to develop coherent objectives in its relationship with the federal government, pursue them, and succeed. They’ve used the struggle or, to be accurate, the smoke and flash of an apparent struggle, for domestic political purposes.
But they’ve been singularly unable to succeed with just about any major federal initiative, except for the federal loan guarantee on Muskrat Falls. And even that came with a load of histrionics that remains unexplained.
Compare that to the experience of previous administrations, Liberal and Conservative, and you’ll see just how odd the recent record is. The problem isn’t in Ottawa, either. It’s in St. John’s.
All of that is another reason to look forward to Ray Blake’s book on federal-provincial relations from Smallwood to Williams.