Harper gives Quebec major billing in Throne Speech

PM's language clearly echoes Meech Lake, which will sow division among Liberals

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The Gazette, Friday, April 7, 2006

Quebec is known for giving the best cocktail parties in Ottawa and lived up to its reputation on Wednesday with a reception that featured top Canadian wines, a bountiful supply of smoked Atlantic salmon, and a generous helping of cabinet ministers, senators, chiefs of staff and ink-stained wretches.

The occasion was the opening of the 39th Parliament and the Speech from the Throne, which Quebec had every reason to celebrate.

It is exceptional, if not unprecedented, for a single province and its population to be mentioned in a Throne Speech. Quebec and Quebecers were mentioned five times, and they're not even on Stephen Harper's Top 5 list.

In fact, Quebec is Harper's top priority, in terms of delivering on the promise of his Quebec City speech of last Dec. 19. It is also his top priority in terms of graduating from a minority to a majority government in the next election. With 25 per cent of the Quebec vote in the last election, he won 10 seats off the island of Montreal. If he can grow to 35 per cent, he can win 35 seats in the next one. It depends entirely on whether he delivers the goods.

The central message of the Throne Speech was contained in a single sentence: "The government is committed to an open federalism that recognizes the unique place of a strong, vibrant Quebec in a united Canada."

Then: "It will work with the government and legislature of Quebec in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration to advance the interests of Quebecers."

A campaign speech is one thing - promises, promises. A Throne Speech is quite another - government policy announced by the governor-general at a formal state occasion. There is all the difference in the world.

A Throne Speech isn't about details - that comes later in legislation, regulations and federal-provincial agreements. A Throne Speech is about tone, and it is all about the broad strokes of public policy.

Thus, Harper doesn't say how he's going to resolve the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces. He just says he will address "concerns about the fiscal imbalance and will work to ensure fiscal arrangements in which all governments have access to the resources they need to meet their responsibilities."

Again, on a place for Quebec at UNESCO, under the Mulroney-Johnson formula that enabled the creation of la Francophonie in 1985, by giving Quebec representation in areas of its constitutional jurisdiction, such as education and culture:

Quote, unquote: "The government recognizes the special cultural responsibilities of the government of Quebec and will therefore invite Quebec to play a role in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization."

The UN might have rules about member countries speaking with a single voice in its various organizations, but Harper and Jean Charest will find a way to work through that and proclaim whatever arrangements they agree on to be a great and famous victory for open federalism.

Meanwhile, Harper has laid a trap for the Liberals by referring to Quebec's "unique place" in the federation. This has the potential to divide the Liberals in the same way they were torn apart by the distinct-society provisions of the Meech Lake accord.

While Harper isn't proposing a constitutional amendment, he is using language that clearly echoes Meech, and is certain to become part of the discussion in the Liberal leadership campaign.

Such candidates as Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, who announce their bids today, are certain to be asked whether they agree that Quebec has a "unique place" within Canada.

If they don't, how will they explain that in Quebec? The Meech period exposed deep cleavages in the Liberal Party, between the Trudeau wing opposing it and the Turner wing supporting it. If the Liberals get into an internal debate over who will speak for Canada, the party will be torn apart - and its support in Quebec will be reduced to the West Island of Montreal.

Furthermore, the federal Liberals must ask themselves if they are prepared to make the task of re-electing Charest next year any more difficult than Charest has already made it for himself.

It will be problematic for any federal Liberal leadership candidate, soliciting support in Quebec, to oppose positions on the fiscal imbalance and UNESCO that are the heart of Charest's case for re-election: that the Quebec Liberals best represent the interest of Quebecers, and have the gains to prove it.

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