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Premiers agree more federal money needed, but they don't have a price tag

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Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, New Brunswick Premier David Alward and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, left to right, attend the opening session at the Council of the Federation meeting in Charlottetown on Thursday, August 28, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

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Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, New Brunswick Premier David Alward and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, left to right, attend the opening session at the Council of the Federation meeting in Charlottetown on Thursday, August 28, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

CHARLOTTETOWN - Canada's premiers have agreed at their annual meeting that they need more money from Ottawa to pay for health-care and infrastructure — a familiar refrain at these gatherings — but there was no consensus Thursday on how much cash they want to deal with crumbling roads and an aging population.

Premier Robert Ghiz, host of Council of the Federation conference in Charlottetown, said those numbers would be released in January, when the premiers have scheduled another meeting.

Ghiz also said the premiers agreed to set up committees to advise them on infrastructure needs and an aging population.

"Those two areas were the ones we were unanimous on," he told a news conference at the conclusion of the first full day of talks. The meeting wraps up Friday.

The premiers also agreed to call on the federal government to set up a so-called aging innovation fund to help pay for ballooning health-care costs. However, there were few details on how large that fund should be or what it would be used for.

The federal government was quick to respond to the demands.

"No government in Canadian history has provided more funding to the provinces for health care, and it continues to grow," Finance Minister Joe Oliver said in an email.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said the premiers welcomed the input of Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, whose federalist Liberal party defeated the separatist Parti Quebecois in April.

"I think it's a huge boon to the discussion around the table that we have a premier in Quebec who wants to take part," she said, adding that Quebec's status on a health innovation working group had been changed from observer to permanent member.

Ghiz said the premiers also discussed the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. He cited a report issued Thursday by the Conference Board of Canada that confirms the provinces' long-held position that the disparity between the two levels of government is getting worse.

"(The federal government) is going to be coming into a balanced budget situation in the very near future and we want to make sure that our priorities ... are going to be front and centre," the premier said.

The report concludes that as the federal budget surpluses grow and provincial deficits increase, the provinces will face a significant challenge providing public services.

The premiers have been pushing Ottawa on the issue for years, saying the rising cost of providing social programs is closely tied to the country's aging population. But the federal Conservative government has flatly denied that a fiscal imbalance exists.

Ghiz said the problem is particularly acute in the health-care sector, where federal increases to transfers for the provinces are not keeping pace with growing costs even though the overall numbers are rising.

As well, Ghiz challenged Ottawa's assertion that it is spending more on infrastructure than any previous government, saying the amount may be larger but it is not meeting the demand.

Premier David Alward, who is in the middle of a provincial election campaign, also zeroed in on the problems associated with an aging population and the need to boost the province's lagging economy.

He took the opportunity to remind New Brunswickers of the main plank of his campaign: promoting the province's small but growing shale gas industry.

"We see that on the horizon in New Brunswick and we are moving forward," he said.

The premiers of Canada's three western provinces also announced they're going to review the remaining trade barriers between them as part of their New West Partnership.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said while the deal between his province, Alberta and British Columbia has made progress on easing the movement of goods and services across borders, more work can be done.

Wall said he was taken aback after discovering that a manufacturer of first aid kits would have to satisfy 10 different sets of regulations in order to operate throughout Canada.

"This seems dumb," Wall said. "At the heart of improving trade issues is trying to remove dumb from the economy."

Follow @NovaMac on Twitter.

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