OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau says he promised during last year's election campaign to hold the line on annual transfer payments to the provinces for health care — so no one should be surprised that his government is now "staying faithful" to that commitment.
Trouble is, that's not actually what the Liberals promised.
The prime minister made the assertion Monday during a roundtable interview with The Canadian Press, shortly before provincial health and finance ministers — who want the Canada Health Transfer to continue to increase at a rate of six per cent each year, as it has done since 2004 — rejected the latest federal offer as insufficient.
Trudeau said he was clear during the last fall's campaign that a Liberal government would stick with the previous Conservative government's unilateral decision to limit growth of the health transfer, starting next year, to three per cent annually.
"Canadians voted, in part, for our commitment to increase health care transfers by three per cent," he said in French.
"And yes, we were well aware we would be criticized for that during the election campaign but it's a promise we made in terms of priorities. People should not be surprised that we are staying faithful to our election promises."
In fact, Trudeau did not actually commit to any specific increase in the health transfer during last year's election campaign.
The Liberal platform promised only to work collaboratively with the provinces to negotiate a new health accord, including a long-term agreement on funding. And, "as an immediate commitment," it further promised to pour $3 billion over four years into home care.
No money was set aside in the Liberals' fiscal plan to pay for anything beyond a three per cent escalator. Still, asked on the campaign trail if he'd commit to maintaining the six per cent increase in the health transfer each year, Trudeau would neither agree to do so nor rule it out.
On Monday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Health Minister Jane Philpott sweetened the pot somewhat in an effort to get a deal, offering their provincial counterparts a 3.5 per cent annual increase in the health transfer and another $11 billion over 10 years for home care and mental health. That was rejected.
The federal government's willingness to sink money into health care pales in comparison to its enthusiasm for investing in infrastructure projects. It has announced plans to spend $186 billion on infrastructure over the next 11 years.
But Trudeau said that disparity is a result of campaign promises as well.
"We made a series of difficult but important choices in the election campaign and as people are beginning to understand after one year in office, we do what we say we were going to do," he said.
"We made a commitment to grow the economy for the middle class and those working hard to join it and obviously investing in infrastructure, starting to close the massive infrastructure gap in this country, is extremely important, both for creating jobs in the short term and creating growth and opportunity in the medium and long term."
In French, Trudeau also suggested that pouring billions into health care is more difficult for the federal government because delivery of health care falls under constitutional authority of the provinces.