The Suicidal Politics of Quebec as Une Nation
Michael Ignatieff must be feeling vindicated this week, eh?
The week certainly hasn't lacked in surprises. First, Stephen Harper reverses a position he's held for... well, his entire political career, saying that he now supports recognizing Quebec as a nation. Then, the entire Conservative caucus cheered his position, despite the fact that most of them used to be Alliance-Reformers, a party that was formed in no small part due to opposition to the Meech Lake Accord. (The Conservative caucus are trained seals, though, so that's no real surprise.)
To delve further into the surreal, the Liberal caucus applauds the prime minister's statement almost in unison. Wha!? Every single Liberal leadership candidate, to my knowledge (I'm not 100% sure about Volpe or Hall Findlay) supports this move. Double wha!? Even Stephane Dion, a staunch federalist, and Ken Dryden back the motion, as do Bob Rae and Gerard Kennedy (though they can't vote on it.)
So what the hell is going on here? Well...
Stephen Harper is trying to recreate the Mulroney coalition, hoping to win Quebec and the West, and thus make winning in Ontario (where he still has problems) unnecessary for a majority. He obviously senses more room for growth in Quebec than in Ontario, and he's probably right about that, hence the nation play. Does he actually believe what he's saying? That's a tough question to answer; as Andrew Coyne said on The National last night, Stephen Harper has shown his principles to be "extraordinarily flexible" (the adverb may have been different, I don't have a transcript on hand) and he's absolutely right about that. Personally, I don't think Harper believes Quebec should be recognized as a nation, but he doesn't care enough about that issue to throw away votes in Quebec over it, hence his unexpected maneuvre.
Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois, surprisingly, are refusing to take "yes" for an answer, as Bob Rae put it. They are going to fight the motion declaring them a nation. Why? Because the Bloc are stubborn and obstinate. They are going to introduce their own resolution, which essentially calls Quebec a nation, without any reference to Canada.
Perhaps the only non-surprise is that Jack Layton, political opportunist that he is, plans to vote for both motions. To repeat, Jack Layton is going to vote for a Bloc Quebecois motion which calls Quebec a nation, independent of any reference to Canada. Nice, Jack. Hey, remember that loan of votes you asked for (and got) from the Liberals last time around? I think it's time to pay up.
The unintended but unavoidable consequence of this move is that it takes a load off the shoulders of the Liberals. Harper has essentially tossed the party a lifeline, saving it from the divisions the nation resolution could cause at the convention, which is why the Liberals have grabbed onto it so readily. The Liberal Party has always been divided over this issue; Trudeau was against it, Turner was for it, Chretien against it, and Martin for it. John Turner avoided dividing the party over the issue in the 1988 election by coming out in favour of Meech Lake, and against Free Trade, a compromise that most Liberals were able to live with. Turner feared losing votes over the issue, and so supported Meech.
Of course, what none of the parties realized last time was that Canadians don't want this! Despite both major parties supporting Meech and Charlottetown, it was defeated at the polls. And polls about the subject now are showing that a clear majority of Canadians do not support the motion. This has all happened before, and the end result was:
- The complete and utter decimation of the Conservatives in Quebec
- The current dominance of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec
- The knee-capping of the Liberals in Quebec
- The country being taken to the brink in the 1995 referendum