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Reality Check

The politics of patriotism By Robert Sheppard,CBC.ca Reality Check Team | Dec. 22, 2005 | More Reality Check

Is Stephen Harper in bed with the separatists? Paul Martin seems to think so. "With Stephen Harper and the Tories in power, we would see a much different Canada, a much more divisive Canada," the Liberal leader told supporters earlier this month. "And also, we would see him and Gilles Duceppe, if they get enough seats, working together to dismantle this country that all of us are so proud of."

It's a refrain senior Liberals have been trying on for months now – the implication being that only they are capable of standing up for a united Canada. Indeed, the sentiment has become so institutionalized in Grit circles that Liberal party national director Steven MacKinnon just sent a fundraising letter to potential donors, asking for support and noting, "You'll be helping ensure that a Liberal government is re-elected and that a Conservative-Bloc partnership does not reverse Canada's remarkable progress."

Liberal unhappiness with Harper's recent pitch to Quebec centres on three broad themes:

  • That the Conservative leader is cozying up to Quebec nationalists;
  • That he is promising Quebec a greater role in international forums;
  • And that he's now on record favouring asymmetrical federalism--broadly the ability to do side deals with individual provinces so as to help alleviate the so-called fiscal imbalance, the fact that they run deficits while Ottawa posts multibillion-dollar surpluses.

All these issues have a long and convoluted history in the context of Quebec politics. It's a history that suggests Martin may not be in the best position to throw stones; also that Harper appears to have moved almost exactly to where the Liberal leader himself was on Quebec, just a year or so ago.

Cozying up

The Martin record on this can be summed up in a name: Jean Lapierre. The federal transport minister and Martin's Quebec lieutenant, Lapierre quit the Liberals in disgust over the failure of Meech Lake in 1990, and became a founding member of the Bloc Quebecois, alongside firebrand leader Lucien Bouchard. He sat as a Bloc MP for two years. A radio commentator in recent years, Lapierre returned to the Martin Liberals in February 2004 and was reported to be one of seven Quebec nationalists running for the party in the last election. They were said to be a symbol of the Martin government's open-tent policy towards reconciling with Quebec.

In opposition, the Conservatives had great sport with Lapierre's resurrection. In the current campaign, Harper has criticized the separation option but has generally steered clear of personal attacks on Duceppe. Following the first round of leaders' debates, Harper said, "Everybody knows that the people who work in federal politics love their country." Duceppe, he went on, just does so "in a slightly different way than the rest of us."

International forums

In his policy statement in Quebec City this week, Harper said he is open to having Quebec have a seat, with Canada, on international forums dealing with language and culture. An example of one such forum is Paris-based UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

This is exactly the position Martin took during a speech in May 2004 in Laval, Que. It follows the precedent set by the Mulroney government in the mid-1980s, when it formally invited Quebec to be part of the Canadian delegation at the Francophonie, the summit of French-speaking countries.

Martin's Canadian heritage minister, Liza Frulla, a Quebecer, even went so far at one point to suggest Quebec's representative could speak for Canada at UNESCO in her absence. This prompted a rebuke from Conservative critic Stockwell Day that "you can't mix up your foreign affairs with your provincial affairs," and that the Liberals ought to get their act together.

Today, Martin is calling the UNESCO idea part of a Bloc platform that Harper is adopting. He also points out that UNESCO membership is only for sovereign nations – which no one quibbles with – and that "it's important that Canada speak with one voice on the international stage."

Demands by Quebec that it have its own role on the international stage in areas of provincial jurisdiction have been a feature of Canadian politics since the late 1960s and were a regular source of friction during the Trudeau years. Liberal Premier Jean Charest has revived that demand. And over the past year or so, Quebec participated on its own in a France-led trade delegation to Mexico and sent formal condolences to the Palestinian Authority on the death of Yasser Arafat – without any hint of protest from Ottawa.

Asymmetric federalism

In the Pearson years, this was called "flexible federalism" and generally seen as a good thing, the kind of supple politics that allowed Quebec to opt out and develop its own pension plan, and also its own health and welfare schemes with its share of federal funding. Then came the Trudeau years and this kind of deviation from the national standard became a no-no.

Joe Clark was a big believer in asymmetrical federalism. For his pains, he was taken to task by Trudeau for being a "head waiter to the provinces." In a similar vein, Harper today is being castigated by Martin for being merely "a tax collector for the provinces" and failing to stand up for a strong federal government.

That is despite the fact Martin himself seems to be an asymmetric federalist: the 2004 federal-provincial agreement on health care and the 2005 deal on EI funds both contained special side arrangements with Quebec. Similarly, the January 2005 offshore revenue deals with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland contained special provisions that sheltered them from having their transfers clawed back, to the annoyance of other provinces.

Harper has said, vaguely, he would consider transferring federal tax points to provinces to help them with the fact that many are in the red while Ottawa is racking up huge surpluses. This is a potentially massive giveaway to provinces with an always ready appetite for federal tax dollars.

A more immediate test of Harper's sympathy to provincial needs could come over his day-care policy. Harper is promising choice – and the day-care money – directly to parents. But Quebec wants long-term guaranteed funding for the heavily subsidized network it has already developed and is likely to want that money for its own system. Which promise to keep? Asymmetry was simpler when in was just the federal ox that got gored.

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