Harper shows Liberals a way out of the quicksand

Party can drop divisive nation debate and move on at next week's convention

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The Gazette, Friday, November 24, 2006

Stephen Harper built a bridge that allows the Liberals to walk out of the constitutional swamp they got themselves into on the way to their leadership convention next week.

If they are smart, they will cross that bridge, get on the road to Montreal and let Harper's resolution that Quebecers form a nation within Canada be the end of the matter.

Once the House votes on the resolution next Monday, there's really no need for the Liberals to sink into the swamp again at their convention. A resolution recognizing the Quebec nation within Canada and calling on the party to "officialize this historical and social reality," is scheduled to be debated in a policy workshop next Wednesday.

But having voted for it in the House, why would the Liberals need to vote on it again?

The resolution was sent to the convention by the Quebec wing of the party, principally the backers of Michael Ignatieff, whose campaign manifesto proposed constitutional recognition of Quebec as a nation.

If the hard-liners force the issue onto the floor of the full convention, it could still have the potential to blow the place up.

Ignatieff started this with his manifesto in September, so he figures to be the main beneficiary among the leadership candidates of Harper's resolution, which is supported by all three federalist parties in the House.

But it's precisely because he started it that some Liberals think he should pay for it at the convention. It isn't about the Quebec-nation thing. It's his judgment, or lack of it, on a series of pronouncements on everything from whether he would serve under another leader to whether the Israelis committed war crimes in their war with Hezbollah last summer.

At first appearance, it would it seem that Stephane Dion, as an ardent opponent of special status for Quebec, took the biggest hit.

But here again, appearances might be deceiving. The wording of the motion describes Quebecers as a nation within Canada, not Quebec as a nation. This fits perfectly with what Dion has said - that Quebecers could be considered a nation in the sociological sense.

He can live with it. And in fact, as he told CBC Radio's Bernard St. Laurent yesterday, Harper consulted him on it late Tuesday. The prime minister had just received word of the Bloc's motion on the Quebec nation, and was working the phones. Dion said Harper's language was very close to a compromise he was planning to present to his party.

For Dion, it means that instead of fighting a rearguard action on the constitution, he can concentrate on winning enough ex-officio delegates from the party establishment to pull him past Gerard Kennedy into third place. From third, he could have a chance of overtaking either Ignatieff or Bob Rae, and being on the final ballot against one of them.

What Dion's support does for Harper is give him some bullet-proofing in English-speaking Canada, especially among Trudeauites. If the father of the hardline Clarity Act can live with it, maybe it's time to turn this particular page and move on.

The only real losers in this nation business are Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc Quebecois, who thought they had sprung a trap on the Liberals on the eve of their convention, a trap in which Harper would also become entangled. Instead, in a move that showed great skills as a field general, Harper deftly turned the tables on the Bloc. Their own resolution will be defeated, and they would be the only party to vote against recognition of Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada. They'll have to explain that to the voters. There were a lot of long faces on the Bloc benches yesterday, and no wonder.

As for Harper, rather than allowing the Liberals to split over this, he has given them a free pass to a united convention.

While they were generally relieved yesterday, it was also dawning on Liberals that Harper has seized the high ground as a nation builder.

It allows him to get back to his campaign narrative as the boy from Leaside, who become the man from Calgary who extended "la main tendue," the outstretched hand, to Quebec.

This is a very powerful and sympathetic story, and it puts Harper right back in the game in Quebec.

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