Conservatives should go back to what works in Quebec

Harper could rebound by pushing spending curbs in provincial jurisdiction

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 27, 2009

There is a rule of politics that when a leader and party get in a lot of trouble, they try going back to what worked for them in the beginning.

This week's poll numbers are pretty eloquent about how much trouble Stephen Harper and the Conservatives have in Quebec. In the authoritative Léger poll for The Gazette and Le Devoir, the Liberals lead the Bloc 37 to 33 per cent, with the NDP at 14 per cent and the Conservatives trailing at 13 per cent - on track to lose all 10 of their Quebec seats. In yesterday's Ipsos poll for Canwest papers and Global television, it was much the same story, with the Libs and Bloc tied at 36 per cent, while the Dippers and Tories were tied at 14 per cent.

This is a long way from where the Tories peaked at 34 per cent in a Léger poll published last September at the end of the second week of the election campaign, when they actually led the Bloc, which was at 32 per cent. In only eight months, the Conservatives have flamed out while the Liberals, at 20 per cent last September, have replaced the Conservatives as the competitive federalist party everywhere in Quebec, even in the Conservative stronghold around Quebec City.

From 34 to 13 per cent in only eight months. Even the stock market didn't fall that far, that fast. And with the Bloc again spinning its wheels as it was at the start of the election last fall, the Liberals and their new leader, Michael Ignatieff, have been the sole beneficiaries of the Conservative flameout, because Iggy's not Stéphane Dion, and he's definitely not Stephen Harper.

Harper hasn't been helped by the Great Recession, but his problems aren't really about the economy, or about his competence to manage it. And it's not really about character, except in the sense that Quebecers have decided that the Conservatives don't share their values and that the prime minister has a mean streak, which isn't the same as being tough.

This goes back to the cultural cuts and young offenders' proposals of the campaign, Harper's "separatist coalition" rhetoric of the parliamentary crisis, and the PMO putting it out that Brian Mulroney was no longer a member of the party he twice led to landslide victories as a favourite son of Quebec. Voters might not understand cap and trade in the climate change debate, but they understand cheap when they see it.

So, what is to be done for Harper to turn things around in Quebec? First, he should get new advisers on Quebec - the ones he's got cost him a majority in October, and created a tipping point with Quebec voters in December. It's amazing these people still have jobs.

But then, going back to what worked for him in the beginning, Harper might re-visit his "open federalism" speech of December 2005 in Quebec City, the one that led to his 10-seat breakthrough in the election of January 2006. Harper has actually delivered on some major promises of that speech, notably resolving the fiscal imbalance and creating a place for Quebec at UNESCO. As a bonus, there's Harper's resolution in the House recognizing Quebecers as a nation within a united Canada.

But there's one element of the Quebec City speech that's been unfulfilled, and it could prove very strategic in the event Harper chose to revisit it. And that's his promise to limit the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction unless a majority of provinces signed on to it.

In other words, Ottawa would not invade provincial jurisdictions such as health care, education, and cities, unless invited in.

If you think the Québécois nation resolution had the potential to send all three opposition parties scattering in all directions, a resolution or bill to limit the federal spending power would sow discord among the Liberals, while the Bloc would be forced to support it even while denouncing it as inadequate, leaving the NDP completely out in the cold as a party that has always supported new federal programs in provincial jurisdictions.

This is about core values and conceptions of federalism. Harper has always been very comfortable supporting the constitutional division powers in Sections 91 (federal powers) and 92 (provincial jurisdictions) of the Constitution Act. Like every Conservative leader from Macdonald to Mulroney, he is a BNA prime minister. It's the vision the founding fathers gave us in the British North America Act, and it has worked pretty well.

The Liberals are the party of the federal spending power, from Pearson to Martin. They are the party of "national standards" in the current debate over EI reform. The Libs would be very uncomfortable and divided in their caucus as between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

This has the virtue of being a big idea, one of Harper's own. In strategic terms, it would help the party to grow again in Quebec. Purely in terms of tactics, and Harper loves tactics, he should think of the effect of lobbing that one into the Liberal caucus on a Wednesday morning.

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