- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2007

TORONTO

When Quebec has elections, Ottawa and the other provinces watch with avid in- terest, and that is what they are doing now.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest announced last month that the province will hold elections March 26. Observers were not surprised, and the consensus is that with the cards stacked in his favor, he will have only himself to blame if he doesn’t win a second term.

Mr. Charest won his first mandate as head of the Liberal Party in Quebec in 2003, when he ran a strong campaign against Premier Bernard Landry, leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois. Mr. Landry relinquished the provincial leadership after his defeat, and the Quebec separatist movement hit a rock.

This time around, Mr. Charest, 48, faces a relative greenhorn in Andre Boisclair, 40, who succeeded Mr. Landry as PQ leader.

Quebec watchers say Mr. Boisclair was caught on the wrong foot when the election announcement came. He did not quite have his team together and seems uncertain whether he should campaign on the PQ’s single theme — separatism — or add other issues of interest to the people of Quebec.

To make things worse, he was forced to admit shortly before the election announcement that he had taken cocaine while a provincial Cabinet minister.

Quebec usually gives its premiers a second mandate, and recent opinion polls show the Liberals are leading in the province as a whole. However, they also show the Parti Quebecois retains strong backing in the most strongly Francophone parts of the province. That may be of concern to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who needs more support in precisely those areas to win seats from the separatist Bloc Quebecois in the federal Parliament.

As columnist Chantal Herbert recently wrote in the Toronto Star, Mr. Harper’s future may depend on how well Mr. Charest does in the Quebec election.

Tories have a stake

A defeat for Quebec’s Liberals, she wrote, “could dramatically reduce the prospects of the Conservative government in Ottawa, not only in Quebec but also elsewhere in Canada.”

It is a quirk of Canadian politics that the provincial Liberals in Quebec are right-of-center allies of the Conservatives in Ottawa and not of the Canadian Liberal party, which is left-of-center and is now the largest opposition group in the House of Commons.

As Miss Herbert’s reasoning runs, a win for Mr. Charest in Quebec would so demoralize the separatist rank and file in the province that it could provide an opportunity for Mr. Harper to send in his foot soldiers to sweep through separatist territory in Quebec and snatch some of the federal parliamentary seats currently held by the Bloc Quebecois, the federal separatist party.

The Bloc currently holds 51 seats in the House of Commons, where Mr. Harper is heading a minority government with 125 seats — 30 shy of a majority.

Mr. Harper won the federal elections in February 2006, but did not form a coalition with any of the other parties, preferring to go it alone, on the bet that they would allow him to stay in power at least 18 months before trying to boot him out. He was not playing poker: Minority governments in Canada usually last about 18 months.

However, Mr. Harper is not the kind of politician who would sit back and bite his nails while waiting for the Quebec game to play out. A shrewd strategist, he has been working step by step to ensure that Mr. Charest does win big in Quebec.

An astute negotiator, he was able to partly rebuild the Canadian right, which had splintered three ways under former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, allowing the Liberals to sweep to power in Ottawa and stay there for 12 years.

Mr. Mulroney’s gung-ho style had split the then-ruling Progressive Conservatives into three right-wing groups — the Alberta-based Reform Party (later called the Canadian Alliance), the Quebec-based Bloc Quebecois and a rump Progressive Conservative Party at the center.

Harper eyes new base

Succeeding where others had failed, he brought the Alliance and the PCP together under the banner of the new Conservative Party of Canada, but the Bloc continued to stay out.

Now, rather than give in to the Bloc’s separatist demands, Mr. Harper is seen to be trying to destroy the Bloc and build a new conservative base in Quebec at the expense of the separatists.

Among his more astute moves recently was to have a resolution passed in the Canadian Parliament recognizing Quebecers as a nation within Canada.

The move raised eyebrows outside Canada, but the concept of several nations within Canada has been around for some time. For one thing, Canadian aboriginal groups have long been officially referred to as “First Nations.”

Mr. Harper’s move may have taken the wind out of the separatist sails. Mr. Boisclair no longer even uses the word “referendum” — for a separate Quebec — in his campaign, and has begun focusing on issues like the environment, education and health.

Mr. Harper has already done a U-turn on his environmental agenda, and is expected to present more goodies to Mr. Charest in his next budget, on March 19, just a week before the Quebec elections.

If Quebec gets more funding for such things as education and health, the other provinces, especially Ontario, could expect a similar loosening of the federal purse strings in their favor, too.

Little wonder, then, that the other provinces are watching the Quebec-Ottawa dance with such interest.


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