Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How Will Harper Respond to the Changes in Quebec?

It is difficult to know what to make of the Quebec election results from way out here in Alberta. Understanding the implications for Canada is even more challenging. Here is what I think but I can assure you, we are now living on moving ground. The dynamics are so different that I feel know nothing for sure these days.

The pundit in me says that last night the electorate in Quebec sent a shot across Charest’s bow, sent a direct hit into Boisclair’s bow and let Dumont take a bow. It is a good sound bite but not helpful in understanding the implications of the Quebec vote last night.

So where are we, after having had some time to sleep on the Quebec election? Well there will be a raft of recounts so we are not yet sure of the final result but the popular vote was a three-way tie notwithstanding the final seat results. That three-way vote split should not be forgotten because it has serious implications for any minority government which has a short fuse by definition. I expect the dynamic, timing and outcome of the next federal election will have a lot to do with determining when the next Quebec election will happen and what it will be about.

The Quebec population shifted away from deciding who governs based on federalists and separatist criteria. It has not reverted to deciding government based on traditional left versus right criteria either. If you are to trust the observations on seasoned reporters from the province, the rise of the ADQ was more about identity politics and many Quebecers decided who to vote for mostly on that criterion. Dumont tapped the angst of rural and socially conservative Quebecers over accommodations around immigration, family values, and the distrust of elites and a fear of an erosion of the francophone identity. He also benefited significantly from the disenchantment of the old Liberal and spent PQ party hierarchies. Even as the second party Dumont is the undisputed winner from last night.

M. Dumont’s campaign comments have been characterized as “a more prudent kind of nationalism” allowing him to play both sides of the federalists-separatist fence. This so-called “autonomist” approach is repackaged sovereignty association to my mind. If it is about demanding Ottawa respect provincial jurisdiction and that strong provincial governments add to the strength of Canada, I am all for it. We shall have to wait and see what he means by an “autonomist” Quebec.

I see Dumont today as a three-legged man. He has one foot with the federalists, one with the separatists, and another planted firmly with the social conservatives of Quebec. Can the “real” Dumont stand up in this situation for very long? Time will tell but he has to shift his political weight one way or the other, sooner than later, or else he will look indecisive and ill-defined.

Harper clearly now needs a new best friend in Quebec. Charest is not “the man” any more. Boisclair is likely on his way out and never was in the running for Harper’s new best friend in Quebec anyway. Enter Dumont as the great Harper hope for victory in Quebec. Dumont's support for Harper will come at a price in both dollars and devolution of powers to the province. He will force Harper to spend and look like a profligate Liberal who is bound and determined to buy Quebec for power and peace, no matter what it takes. The last budget is a mere foreshadowing of this Quebec-centric spending spree Harper will have to embrace to win a Quebec based majority government I expect. The rest of Canada will will not be amused and tensions will rise.

Dumont’s Quebec base is also the old time-religion type so-cons that are reminiscent of the original western Reformers. That is a group that brought Harper to minority status but who he has abandoned as of late. Consider their growing disenchantment withHarper and his "set up" loss on the SMS vote, his reversals on Income Trusts, and the recent giveaway budget to Quebec. He is now seen as being all about a quest for personal power and abandoning the very principles that got him elected party leader and Prime Minister in the first place.

This means that the Dumont demands of Harper will force him to say one thing in Quebec and another in the ROC if his romancing of Dumont is going to work to win Quebec as the means to a CPC majority. Not an easy game to play.

We live in uncertain times with minority governments in Canada and Quebec now, and with Ontario on its way to the polls this fall. Alberta is a year away from an election too. Who knows what those elections will decide.

Citizens all over the country are expressing dissatisfaction about how they are being governed. Quebec is just the most recent and most dramatic expression of this discontent. If it keeps up we may have to declare old fashioned politicians as endangered species all over Canada. That may be a good thing come to think of it.