An idea catches on

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National Post, Monday, June 22, 2009

This series is drawn from the translation of a book of political essays edited by Andre Pratte, editorial pages editor of La Presse, which caused a significant stir when it was first published in French in 2007. Authors from diverse professional backgrounds and political temperaments wanted to start a new conversation on federalism. All of them, as Pratte writes in his introduction, "appreciate that Quebec is better off trying to develop within Canada rather than trying to become a separate country."

They are what Robert Bourassa would have called "pragmatic federalists," years removed from the "doctrinaire federalism" of Pierre Trudeau -- a view of Quebec's role in Canada that has no constituency in the province. The pragmatic federalists have no interest in re-fighting the constitutional wars of the patriation and Meech eras. They are quite content to make incremental gains for Quebec without going down the path of constitutional amendments.

The idea is catching on -- even in the sovereignty camp. In her new Plan for a Sovereign Quebec, Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois proposes sectoral sovereignty, extracting everything Quebec could get from Ottawa on an issue-by-issue basis, with referendums to ratify gains. Nobody really takes her seriously on this, and everyone understands she is merely protecting her sovereigntist flank.

Certainly Jean Charest isn't asking for constitutional re-openers. He's the very soul of incremental federalism. He scored a major win in the 2004 Health Accord, gaining Quebec's share of $41-billion in new federal funding for public health care without having to report to the feds on how he spent the money. Charest called it "asymmetrical federalism," when it's really classical federalism, reflecting nothing more than the division of federal and provincial powers in Sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution Act. The asymmetrical features in the British North America Act are actually to be found in Section 93 on confessional schools and Section 133 recognizing both French and English as languages of the courts and legislature in Quebec.

Charest's incrementalism also prevailed in the fiscal imbalance file, when the province won billions of dollars in new transfer payments and equalization funding from Ottawa in 2007.

It didn't hurt that resolving the fiscal imbalance was the centre-piece of Stephen Harper's "open federalism" speech that opened the door to his breakthrough in Quebec in the 2006 election.

Then there's the bonus from Harper, the November 2006 resolution recognizing "the Quebecois nation within a united Canada." It wasn't a constitutional re-opener, and wasn't even a bill in the House--just a resolution. Incremental federalism.

No one is about to re-invent the wheel of federalism. Any developments depend who's at the table, and what's on the agenda of federal-provincial relations. As it happens, Harper is at a nadir of his fortunes in Quebec, and needs to find a way to get back in a game in which Michael Ignatieff's Liberals are resurgent as the competitive federalist alternative to the Bloc.

When in trouble, smart politicians often go back to what worked for them in the beginning. In his Quebec City speech, Harper promised to limit the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction without the support of a majority of provinces. The Conservative government repeated this promise in the Throne Speech of October, 2007, but then it fell off the radar.

If Harper were to return to it in the fall session of the House, he would be rolling a huge grenade into the Liberal caucus, dividing it between the Quebec caucus and the Rest of Canada as nothing since Meech Lake has. The Bloc would have no alternative but to support it, and the NDP, always an advocate of the federal spending power, would be in a very awkward spot.

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