Pauline Marois, the premier-elect of Quebec, has a shaky minority government, with the balance of power being held by the new Coalition party, and a handful of seats separating the PQ from the Liberal Party.
Marois has promised to up the ante in talks with the Harper government, with the aim of taking over as many powers from the federal government as she can get her hands on, as preliminaries to fullblown independence after a successful separation referendum. Her action plan includes a new Quebec citizenship status, forcing students to learn in English, pressuring the federal government to cede powers now exercised by the federal government, and generally to paint the federal government under Harper as out of touch with the aspirations of the Quebecois.
Stephen Harper’s Achilles Heel:
The lynchpin of her attack is the Achilles heel of Stephen Harper: his government’s agreement to the motion presented to Parliament agreeing that the Quebecois within Quebec are a ‘nation’ within a united Canada.
Marois conveniently forgets the qualifying phrase (‘within a united Canada’) and focuses on the word ‘nation’. She has already attacked Harper by claiming that any reluctance on his part to devolve powers from the federal government to the Quebec government will mean that Harper’s support of the ‘Quebecois as a nation’ motion was simply lip service, duplicitous, and designed to hoodwink Quebecers.
That motion opened Pandora’s Box because it allowed federal politicians from all the parties to agree to something that they hope might mean one thing to Quebecers (‘Look, we’re agreeing to something of substance for you! You are a Nation!’) while meaning nothing to the Rest of Canada (‘It’s just words, signifying nothing’.)
But, as Hillary Clinton spelled out to Obama during their fierce fight to be the Democratic presidential candidate, words have consequences.
Marois rightfully can ask the Prime Minister to explain exactly what being a ‘nation’ means. And she can rightfully test that motion’s words against each and every power that she wants devolved from the central government to the provincial government.
After all, the Parliamentary motion either meant something or it meant nothing. There is no halfway about it.
The chickens might be coming home to roost.
John Ibbitson in today’s Globe&Mail advises PM Harper to adopt Henry Kissinger’s policy of ‘benign neglect’ towards Africa. Kissinger and Nixon decided not to respond to the attempts by many African nations to broker between the two main protagonists in the Cold War, as John Dumbrell points out in The Making of US Foreign Policy:
Ibbitson’s Advice to Harper:
This is the crux of Ibbitson’s advice to Harper:
We are not going to be dragged back to 1995. The Parti Québécois’ victory Tuesday night is not the overture to a third referendum on sovereignty. There won’t be endless and fruitless debates, failed conferences, court challenges and other agonies.
Stephen Harper has been offered a powerful opportunity to smother the feeble sovereigntist flame. A Conservative government with little political stake in Quebec can convert that apparent weakness to strength, overturning the stale unity debates that have plagued this country for decades through what could be called a strategy of non-engagement…
Ms. Marois will demand new powers for Quebec over employment insurance, culture and communications, immigration and foreign policy, and who knows what else. The Conservatives, in response, will politely but firmly reject every demand. No negotiations. No accommodation. The federal focus will be on jobs, trade and eliminating the deficit – and nothing else. That, simply, is what a strategy of non-engagement entails.
The Risks of Benign Neglect towards a PQ-led Quebec”
Ibbitson recognizes the dangers of a Harper policy of benign neglect of the Marois-Quebec demands:
The PQ no doubt hopes that a strategy of non-engagement will anger Quebeckers. And if Mr. Harper seems arrogant or insensitive to Quebeckers’ needs, he could damage his party’s and the nation’s prospects.
The risk of such a strategy “is that it strengthens the hand of a PQ government that says Ottawa’s not listening, which helps stir the pot for a referendum,” observed Gerald Baier, a political scientist at University of British Columbia who specializes in Canadian federalism. “The potential reward is that it … confirms the reality that a lot of people in Quebec don’t care about the sovereignty issue as much as they used to.”
So, what will it be?
Harper as Head Waiter:
The problem for Harper is that deep down he sympathizes with the Quebec seperatists’ demands for the massive devolution of power from the central government to the provinces. From his ‘Alberta firewall’ days to today, Harper has shown a willingness to diminish the power of the federal government in our political space, and to give free rein to the provinces.
I would not bet on a policy of benign neglect from Harper.
I would expect his new Tories to concede powers not only to the Quebec government but to all other provinces if they want it.