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State of the Nation, Spring 2011 Print E-mail

Harper in Parliament, 2010 

The rise of the West and eclipse of Quebec

This federal election marks an historic turning point

It’s hard to blame the media for having pretty much missed the main story on election night, given the stunning upsets that took place. Still, you’d think by now they’d have grasped the significance of what happened.

The real story of May 2 was not Jack Layton and the NDP surge. Impressive though it was, it leaves Layton, now with 102 seats, with less clout and less influence, and with far more problems, than he had with 36 seats holding power of life and death over a minority government.

Worse for him, over half his caucus answers to Quebec, not to him. And when his neophyte MPs find out, as they soon will, that Layton can deliver no more than the Bloc did – indeed less – they will make his life impossible. The NDP will find itself divided between Anglo centralists and Quebec sovereigntists. Meanwhile, the Liberals, Bloc and Green will all be too busy staving off extinction by outflanking and opposing each other to challenge a government they can’t stop.

Harper’s truly momentous achievement was not that he demolished Liberals. They will be back. He has no more rid Canada of Liberals than Jack Layton has rid Quebec of separatists.

No, it was that he has formed the first peacetime majority government in Canadian history without help from Quebec. Even without his six Quebec seats, he would still have a comfortable majority.

This changes everything.

Until now it has been an axiom of Canadian politics that to form a majority you had to win a large chunk of Quebec. (Minority governments don’t count because they can’t lead and never last.)

It was under the decree of this iron-clad law of politics that Diefenbaker, Stanfield and Clark had to give way to Trudeau, Chretien and Mulroney. It’s this which requires only bilingual prime ministers, and has driven national affairs since the days of the FLQ and the War Measures Act.

Future success lies in holding Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia

The main driving force for change in this election was Ontario, not Quebec. Alberta stayed solidly Conservative (all but one seat), and B.C. remained mostly Conservative, with 21 of 36 seats. Where Harper got his majority was mostly Ontario.

This graph shows the collapse of the Liberals in Ontario over the last five elections, and the relentless advance of the Conservatives from two seats to 73 – with a gain of 22 since 2008.

It seems most unlikely that Harper will

repeat his rather blatant pre-2008 appeal (some would say pandering) to Quebec, which in the end produced no more Quebec seats than the ten he had before the election.

Instead, now that he has a majority in both Houses, the obvious priority will be to resurrect Bill C12, adding 30 seats to the House of Commons – 18 in Ontario, seven in B.C. and five in Alberta. These are all now mostly Conservative provinces for federal purposes, and they will swell that governing majority in the next election. This seat redistribution is long overdue.

Extending this year’s result to 30 more seats in the three provinces, it would have increased the Conservative majority from 26 seats to 45 (all other things being equal).

Other provinces will matter too, of course, but the key to the Conservatives’ future will lie primarily in these three.

No, Quebec separatism is not dead

The big election switch from the Bloc to the NDP means very close to nothing at all

There has been optimistic speculation since the election that the demolition of the Bloc Quebecois – from 49 seats to four – heralds the collapse of the province’s half-century-old sovereignty movement.

Wishful thinking.

As a federal party, the Bloc was always an afterthought for the separatist cause. The movement’s heart and soul is the provincial Parti Quebcois headquartered in Quebec City. The Bloc was the PQ’s rebuttal to constitutional changes in the 1980s that had the backing of the province’s MPs. However, only legislatures can separate a province from Canada, not national parties. The voice of Quebec independence has always been the PQ in the National Assembly; the BQ in Parliament are a mere echo.

Marois at the PQ assembly in April

Not only is the Parti Quebecois once again topping the polls in that province and poised to form government next year, it is sounding increasingly hard-line. At its annual assembly in April PQ leader Pauline Marois, with 93 percent backing from the rank and file, vowed to move sovereignty “from dream to reality” by pursuing a long list of practical steps to prepare “winning conditions” for Quebec’s third referendum.

At the same time, Layton was promising to create “winning conditions” in Parliament for Quebec, at long last, to endorse the 1982 Constitution Act. The phrase “winning conditions” is associated in Quebec with separatism. The NDP have raised impossible expectations, warned U of Montreal politics professor Pierre Martin in the May 5 Toronto Star. “The NDP may have talked a good game, but over the next four and a half years that’s not going to change anything.”

Quebec’s circumstance is much the same as Slovakia’s was. The Slovaks are an ancient and insular ethnicity squashed between larger and stronger countries in east-central Europe. For centuries they have fought to protect their separate identity, for a thousand years from the Hungarians and more recently from the Czechs with whom they were forcibly federated in 1918. After seven decades of Czech disrespect and growing dependency on transfer payments, and with some encouragement from the Czechs, the Slovaks separated peacefully in 1993. Since then by all accounts both sides in the divorce have been doing better, especially the Slovaks.

If another referendum demand emerges in Quebec, it will be time for English Canada to assess Quebec’s usefulness to the federation. This, of course, will not happen in the House of Commons, where national parties with 75 potential seats to lose would rather talk about something else. The discussion would have to be led by provincial governments, and provincially-elected delegations in the Senate.

Specifically Parliament should enact a law requiring a national referendum on Quebec remaining in the federation if Quebec schedules a third one.

This is common sense. In any divorce there are two parties, not just one.

A new message from the West

On April 16th Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith from Alberta spoke to 450 members of the Quebec Liberty Network, a free-enterprise advocacy group in Montreal. Her comments were received with loud and vigorous applause.

She said:

● Stop looking to Ottawa for solutions to your problems.

● Stop depending on equalization and federal transfers from Ontario and Alberta.

● Stop electing separatists.

● Stop criticizing the base industry of Alberta – oil and gas. It keeps you “healthy, wealthy, moving and warm.”

● The net transfer of hundreds of billions of federal dollars over the past fifty years has not prevented Quebec from becoming one of the most publicly indebted jurisdictions in the world, and the least productive large province in Canada.

Though her speech was suitably gracious, Danielle’s point was this: the federal system established by Trudeau and Pearson half a century ago to appease Quebec is holding back Quebec, Alberta and all of Canada. Canadians need to find better answers, and the best place to discuss and resolve these issues is in a provincially-elected Senate, as proposed by the Harper government. The national parties in the Commons refuse to deal with them.

Such statements by a Canadian political leader are unprecedented, inside or outside Quebec. It was basically a summary of the Citizens Centre’s Calgary Congress, of which Danielle was the co-host. In the five years since that event we have created the Wildrose Party and it has grown into Alberta’s government-in-waiting. If the provincial PCs don’t move in this direction they will be replaced. They may be replaced anyway.

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