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Provinces want more health-care money from Martin

CP   2004-01-16 03:36:42  

OTTAWA -- It didn't take long for the heralded new era in federal-provincial relations to stumble into the same old pothole that was the scourge of prime ministers long before Paul Martin. The problem, in a word, is money.

The provinces need it to run hospitals, they want it now, and they accuse the federal government of hoarding it from them by lowballing estimates of the federal budget surplus.

Martin can expect to hear that familiar refrain when he sits with the premiers for his initial first ministers conference, likely two weeks away.

"Money will make the world go round in federal-provincial relations," says David Taras, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

"If (Martin) can deliver as promised, I think things will go very well. If the dollars aren't on the table, then I think things will not go as well."

Taras recalled a line from the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who summed up federal-provincial relations with the cynical phrase: "You scratch my back or I'll scratch your face."

Martin has promised to put a stop to the multilateral mauling.

He held an informal gathering with the premiers at the Grey Cup two days after becoming Liberal leader, and that meeting was declared a touchdown.

But the provinces now are grumbling more loudly over the latest federal musings on health care.

They believe the Martin government is underestimating its surplus to keep health transfers at $2 billion and use the leftover money to pay down the national debt.

Larger than anticipated surpluses have routinely appeared at the end of recent fiscal years, with the money going toward the debt.

But Ottawa insists it will need to scrape together nearly all of its projected $2.3-billion surplus this year to meet its $2-billion target for health-care transfers.

An aide to Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm warned that voters could punish the federal government in this spring's election if it fails to deliver additional cash for health care.

"Ultimately the people of Canada will be able to pass judgment on the federal government in a general election," the aide said.

"The choice in the federal election is this: Do they want to go into the next federal election campaign having refused to address (health care), the No. 1 concern of the people of Canada?"

Although the federal government has frozen capital projects in its effort to find the previously promised $2 billion for health, Finance Minister Ralph Goodale isn't making any promises that even that will be available.

But the provinces see that money as a done deal. They're now demanding the additional amounts recommended by the Romanow report.

"We've seen the federal government play hide-and-seek with the $2 billion that they committed last year," New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord said.

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