Harper signals turning point in managing country

Promises to not intrude on provincial jurisdictions

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The Gazette, Friday, April 21, 2006

When Stephen Harper came to Montreal for a downtown rally two weeks before Christmas, there were barely 200 people in the room, nearly all of them candidates and organizers. The Conservatives couldn't even paper the hall for him.

When he returned to Montreal yesterday for the first time as prime minister, there were as many as 2,000 people in the room and companies bought all the tables to hear him speak to the Board of Trade. There were 30 people at the head table alone, and probably dozens more who thought they belonged there.

Such is the drawing power of any new prime minister. A year ago, Harper would have been fortunate to secure an invitation for the city's premier speaking venue, and the Board of Trade would have done well to put a few hundred diehard bleu loyalists into a small hotel ballroom. In the event, Board of Trade president Isabelle Hudon, who in her 20s worked as an aide in the Mulroney government, booked the biggest hall in town and sold it out within days.

Harper decided to make a show of force by having all his Quebec ministers in the room, and by singling out Public Works Minister Michael Fortier. Harper has understandably taken a lot of heat in the rest of the country for putting Fortier in cabinet through the Senate. In Montreal, it's not an issue, and yesterday Harper tried to turn the tables.

"Make no mistake," he said, "Montreal is a major city - for Quebec, for Canada, and for the world - and, I don't care about Liberal criticism - I am determined that Montreal will be fully represented in our government." So there.

It was one of only two references to the Liberals in the speech, compared with half a dozen about the Bloc Quebecois. It makes sense. The Liberals have been reduced to rubble off the island of Montreal, where the Bloc holds the seats that are the key to Harper's hopes of graduating from minority to majority government in the next election.

Since the founding of the Bloc in 1990 and the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives in 1993, the symbiotic relationship between the Liberals and Bloc has worked to their mutual benefit at the polls. "These quarrels have kept the Bloc alive, artificially," Harper said.

Then: "The political debate in Quebec has been polarized for nearly two generations. It has poisoned the federation and pitted centralizers and separatists in a fight where neither will win and neither will give up. But, mark my words, Quebecers want to move on, and so does your new, national government."

That's all very well as the politics of good intentions, but the voters will also measure promise against performance. Rhetoric is one thing, results quite another, and Harper is expected to deliver.

He claimed to be doing that yesterday by referring, as he does everywhere he goes, to his top five priorities list. You know the Accountability Act, child- care cheques, the GST cut, the health-care guarantee and the crackdown on crime.

But in Quebec, there are three additional priorities arising from the Dec. 19 Quebec City speech that proved to be a seminal moment of the campaign - Quebec's representation at UNESCO, the fiscal imbalance between Ottawa and the provinces, and his pledge not to invoke the federal spending power in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

Harper used the UNESCO file, more symbolic than substantive, as a wedge between the Liberals and the Bloc:

"For Liberals - and here I can quote leadership candidates like Joe Volpe and Michael Ignatieff - the mere thought of Quebec having any role in UNESCO is a threat to the very existence of Canada. And for the Bloc anything short of Quebec being able to veto the position of Canada at UNESCO is the humiliation of Quebec."

The prime minister spoke of "changing the debate, changing the agenda and changing the federation." And whereas Paul Martin's entire domestic program was in provincial jurisdiction, Harper vowed his agenda would "not include federal spending in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Your new government will respect the Canadian constitution."

That's a clear demarcation line from the Liberals and the NDP, to respect the constitutional division of powers and refrain from abusing the federal spending power. This marks an important turning point in the management of the federation, and a vision of Canada more closely aligned with the division of powers by the founding fathers in the constitution of 1867.

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