Harper has no go-to guy for Quebec

Managing the political needs of this province is always a challenge

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Stephen Harper was at a lunch with Mario Dumont in Rimouski last Friday, and some provincial Liberals had a bit of indigestion over it.

They would have been better to follow the gracious line of their leader, Jean Charest, that the prime minister of Canada was always welcome in Quebec, as welcome in Rimouski as he would be in Sherbrooke.

What is unusual or inappropriate about the PM meeting the leader of the opposition in Quebec? Nothing. No more than it's a normal courtesy for the president of the United States to see the opposition leader in Ottawa, or to give him a meeting at the White House (as Ronald Reagan did for Brian Mulroney in opposition, as Bill Clinton did for Jean Chrétien).

The Liberals were annoyed because Harper was seen as propping up Dumont at the end of a lousy session of the legislature for him, and a very good one for Charest.

And how did Dumont return the favour? He said he was an autonomist, seeking more autonomy for Quebec within the federation, which didn't do Harper any favours in the rest of Canada. Then Le Devoir headlined the next day that Dumont didn't want an alliance with Harper, which doesn't do either of them any good in Quebec.

So what was that all about? What did Harper and Dumont get out of the meeting? Nothing? The only winner was Charest, who occupied the high ground, saying such meetings advance what Robert Bourassa used to call "the higher interests of Quebec."

If only Claude Béchard, Charest's natural resources minister, had followed the same route. As the regional minister for the Lower St. Lawrence, he apparently expected to sit next to Harper at the head table at the local chamber-of-commerce luncheon. Obviously miffed, he accused Dumont of going down on bended knee before the prime minister, which might have triggered Dumont's obtuse response. He hasn't put a foot right in the entire fall session, so no one should be surprised that he blew his opportunity with the PM. Harper won't be giving him a similar opportunity anytime soon.

Then again, Charest's industry minister, André Bachand, has infuriated the feds by disclosing his agenda for a meeting with his counterpart, Jim Prentice. Understandably concerned about the impact of dollar parity on exports to the United States in manufacturing and forestry, Bachand has also been making strange noises about devaluing the dollar. This just in: monetary policy is usually set by the governor of the Bank of Canada.

Charest needs to get these guys on a short leash because they've disrupted his own efforts to repair the damage he did himself to his relationship with Harper in the campaign last March, when he allocated the entire fiscal imbalance transfer of $700 million to a tax cut, thereby bribing Quebecers with other people's money rather than their own.

Charest made up for a lot of this over the summer by strongly supporting the mission in Afghanistan regarding the deployment of the Quebec regiment, the Royal 22é.

Charest's office has also been working smoothly with the feds. The premier's new chief of staff, Dan Gagnier, is a former deputy clerk of the Privy Council who knows Ottawa, and federal-provincial relations, better than any of his predecessors in Quebec City. Ever. As a former senior vice-president of Alcan, Gagnier also has an unrivalled knowledge of Quebec's international trade and business agenda.

Charest's real problem with Ottawa is that there's no clear-cut Quebec lieutenant among Harper's five Quebec ministers, and no go-to guy on Quebec in the Prime Minister's Office other than Harper's deputy press secretary, Dimitri Soudas, who is still somewhat junior for such an important role. Neither Harper's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, nor the clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, has an instinctive feel for Quebec files, which are usually run by a top official at PMO (Bernard Roy under Mulroney, Jean Pelletier under Chrétien, Francis Fox under Paul Martin).

Harper's five Quebec ministers resemble regional warlords, sometimes feuding ones at that. There's Jean-Pierre Blackburn, king of the North Shore; Maxime Bernier, king of the Beauce; Josée Verner, queen of Quebec City; Michael Fortier, king of Montreal; and Lawrence Cannon, king of the Gatineau. Their staffs are working to advance the interests of their own ministers, and the absence of a referee at the centre in the PMO is all too obvious.

While the management of Quebec files isn't in a chaotic state, neither is it in the controlled and orderly shape Harper likes in his universe.

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