Sunday, April 08, 2007

Our April 8th Column in LaPresse

LaPresse 8 avril 2007

Ken Chapman et Satya Das
Les auteurs dirigent Cambridge Strategies Inc, groupe-conseil albertain en politique publique

The emergence of Mario Dumont and his autonomist agenda profoundly alters the traditional landscape of the Canadian federation.

In the middle of political uncertainty, the only certainty we have left is that we are all living on moving ground.

Yet this shifting terrain can be a place of some promise. Depending on the connotation and the meaning attached, the word autonomist can also be descriptive of Alberta – a desire for jurisdictional autonomy, in the context of a profound attachment to the idea of Canada.

In a sense, it is good that Quebec shifted away from deciding the old federalist versus separatist criteria. That division brought us close to sterility and futility. Any new channel of discourse, so robustly supported by Quebec voters, is preferable to the stalemate.

Even more interesting is the consensus among commentators that the rise of the ADQ reflects the politics of identity. If this is true, it has implications outside Quebec, in other parts of Canada where similar strains on traditional identity are very much a part of the social and cultural landscape.

Dumont’s ADQ tapped into the angst of rural and socially conservative Quebecers over accommodations around immigration, family values, distrust of elites and a fear of an erosion of francophone identity. Apart from francophone identity, these are resonant issues in Alberta as well.

Dumont’s campaign comments have been characterized as “a more prudent kind of nationalism” allowing him to play both sides of the federalist-separatist fence, yet his future depends on how an autonomist approach is elaborated in practice. If this is about demanding Ottawa respect provincial jurisdiction and a belief that strong provinces add to the strength of Canada, we are all for it. If it means isolationism, we are not!

We see Dumont today as a three-legged man. He has one foot with the federalists, one with the separatists and another planted firmly with Quebec’s social conservatives. Can the “real” Dumont sustain this stance for very long? He has to shift his political weight one way or another or he will risk looking indecisive and ill-defined as the inevitable next election looms large.

We expect the dynamics, timing, issues and even the outcome of the next federal election will have a lot to do with Quebec’s concerns as well. Harper clearly now needs a new “best friend” in Quebec. Jean Charest is not “the man” any more. Andre Boisclair is done, and never was in the running as Harper’s new best friend. Enter Dumont as the great Harper hope for a majority federal government—thanks to Quebec.

Dumont's support for Harper will come at a price in both dollar distributions and the devolution of powers to the province. He will force Harper to look fiscally like a profligate federal Liberal. Our guess is Harper will be bound and determined to buy Quebec’s “loyalty” no matter what it takes. Harper needs to “embrace” Quebec in order to win a majority government. The rest of Canada will not be amused and tensions will rise. Not an easy game for Harper to play but the recent federal Budget shows that every political soul has its price.

We live in uncertain times with minority governments in Canada and Quebec and with Ontario facing an election this fall. Alberta is at best a year away from an election and who knows what these elections will decide or how they will change the country.

Citizens all over Canada are expressing dissatisfaction about how they are being governed. Quebec is just the most recent and the most dramatic expression of this discontent. If this keeps up, we may have to declare that old fashioned command-and-control politicians a nationally endangered species.

Whether Dumont is the first of a new breed, or a repackaged version of an old-school politician, remains to be seen.