A rare political partnership across provincial, federal and partisan divides

They are two cabinet ministers from two competing parties and two rival governments.

Yet they’ve overcome their differences to forge a rare partnership — political and economic.

François-Philippe Champagne doesn’t get much love from Tories as minister of industry in the federal Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Vic Fedeli is not one to chum around with Liberal opponents as Ontario’s minister of economic development in the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford.

But behold the bromance.

To be fair, it’s not a backslapping, high-fiving, jock-talking tie-in. It’s more of a buttoned-down, suit-and-tie tag team that is all business.

And always texting.

They preside over two lumbering bureaucracies that can easily bog down both governments when elbows are up, each level jealously guarding its territorial imperatives and parochial pretensions at the best of times. Now, in tough times, these two politicians are trying to reinvent federal-provincial relations.

They have joined forces — and cash flow — for massive new multibillion-dollar investments in electric vehicles and batteries, lubricated with hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and provincial grants and subsidies. Or, as the politicians prefer to call them, government “investments” — though the dividends have yet to be spelled out.

Why did they do it? How did they both get away with getting along, given the grudges that linger among many of their cabinet colleagues who prefer to take potshots?

At first quietly in the background, now incessantly in the foreground — at almost-weekly ribbon-cutting ceremonies — they sing from the same song book. And sing each others’ praises.

As they did at a Ryerson Democracy Forum I moderated this month, when I brought these two politicians together to talk about how they came together (disclosure: I’m a Visiting Practitioner in the Faculty of Arts). I wanted to know about the economics, but also the politics of collaboration and cohabitation at a time when democracies are increasingly driven by division.

“That’s what Canadians expect of their elected leaders — they want us to get big things done,” Champagne said. “We text each other all the time — and you know who benefits? Well, it’s workers, it’s families, it’s the economy.”

That might sound like a bromide, but it’s believable. After years of partisan sniping and intra-Canadian competition, voters seem to like the idea of politicians co-operating.

After all, their political bosses, the PM and the premier, used each other as punching bags in past campaigns. The pandemic forced the two erstwhile enemies to declare a political truce, which has sometimes wavered, but it’s fair to say that Champagne and Fedeli paved the way personally before it caught on.

Now, their political positivity appears to be infectious. Never mind that Champagne testing positive for COVID just prior to our Democracy Forum (the event was conducted virtually via Zoom, and Champagne told us his symptoms were mild, thanks to being triple-vaccinated; he did not transmit the virus to Fedeli or Ford at a joint announcement earlier that week).

“There’s no competition between — I keep saying it — even between provinces or the federal government,” Champagne told the audience. “The competition is south (of the border), and the competition is in Asia, the competition is in Europe.”

If he seems earnest, he’s a realist in tough economic times when democracies are being stress-tested.

“It’s a good model for democracy at a time where the world is looking for stability, predictability, and the rule of law — which is in high demand and short supply,” Champagne argued.

Fedeli says no amount of second-guessing from fellow Tories would have stopped him from connecting with his Liberal interlocutor. Both had backgrounds in private sector deal making that helped them reach political deals.

“This is business, business, business,” the Ontario minister insisted.

That means bringing the bureaucrats together to overcome any interjurisdictional inertia.

“Now they take their cues from François-Philippe and me,” Fedeli said. “The tone comes from the top.”

But deal making without due diligence won’t get you very far, very fast. Traditionally, one level of government pored over any spending with a microscope, then handed it off to the other partner to take its own close look — from scratch.

Now, instead of “sequential due diligence,” Ottawa and Queen’s Park go at it in real time — at the same time — to save time.

“We were losing time, right?” Champagne explained. “Big decisions are being made now, we need to move.”

However much they might smooth the way, however, the two ministers have been busy trying to remove self-inflicted roadblocks — erected by Canadians inside their own borders. The blockade of the international bridge between Windsor and Detroit earlier this year, amid a continuing convoy occupation in Ottawa, did major reputational damage to Canada as a trading partner.

Both ministers countered that the Americans are more interested in the future security of critical mineral supplies in Canada than they are worried about past bridge blockades.

Champagne, who has previously held the foreign affairs and trade portfolios (and studied at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio), is well positioned to navigate the fallout in the U.S. He is trying to reassure skeptical Americans that Canadians are still their most reliable partners in a fragmented world.

“I see the global supply chain becoming more regional, and more emphasis on resiliency than efficiency,” he said, stressing the “concept of trusted partners.”

On a recent trip to Washington with Ford, Fedeli also tried to reassure the “Buy America” brigade about Canada’s response to the bridge protests, while tackling traditional protectionist impulses in Congress.

“That’s what a democracy is, but our essential transportation routes are now protected, and we will be purchasing our own provincial fleet of tow trucks (to keep the bridge open),” Fedeli added.

As good as they claim to be at working out the details, and cutting the cash, how did they figure out how to share the credit?

In politics, that’s usually the hard part. Are these two politicians just pretending to make it easy?

“My message to students,” Champagne muses, “is if you don’t focus much on who gets credit, but you focus on doing what’s right, you’ll do very well in life, in politics and business generally.”

To which Fedeli nodded in assent — still singing from their shared song book.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist focusing on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn

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