Marois and Harper: The benefits of being frenemies

Pair one sovereigntist premier grasping a new minority with a prime minister holding fast to a comfortable majority and what do you get? Calculated couplings, strategic splits and a strong desire to mess around with each other's agenda.

Collaborative on some issues, combative on others - and keen to use each other to woo voters

The relationship between Quebec premier-designate Pauline Marois and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will set the tone for a new chapter in Quebec-Canada relations. (Jacques Boissinot/Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

When Stephen Harper's senior minister in Quebec, Christian Paradis, met reporters the day after the election of Pauline Marois' minority Parti Québécois government, he didn't seem particularly stressed at the prospect of co-habitating with a sovereignty-pushing counterpart in Quebec City.

"Business as usual," Paradis said several times, to characterize his government's reaction.

What? The last two times the PQ seized the reins, Quebec (and Canada) began hurtling towards difficult and divisive sovereignty referenda. Now no valium is needed for the morning after? 

Could it be that the Harper government rather fancies this new arrangement? That it's no longer compelled to embrace Jean Charest's troubled Liberal government and is considerably more free to define a federalist message for themselves in the province (especially now Mulcair has backed away from the idea of a provincial NDP)?

Still, the renewed threat of a sovereignty referendum is a rather large elephant to ignore.

"We want a country," Marois said on election night, "and we will have one."

In practical terms, the failure of Marois to win a majority renders that rhetoric moot for now. René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau had majorities; she does not. The rest of the new National Assembly would never allow the PQ's defining ambition to get that far.

"Anyone who is following this pretty closely will see in the result that the people of Quebec voted for change," Harper told Bloomberg News two days later. "It was pretty clear they were denying any kind of mandate to pursue the separation of Quebec or the division of the country."

So what kinds of change would Harper consider?

"I have indicated to the premier, as with all provinces, we will continue to be focused on the interest of the Canadian economy," the prime minister said. "We're certainly prepared to collaborate with any provincial government ... I think that's what the people of Quebec want to see as well."

Return to an 'open' relationship?

Paradis last Wednesday brought back a phrase from earlier in Harper's tenure, when actively wooing right-wing voters in Quebec was higher on Harper's agenda: "open federalism."

That Conservative strategy aimed to constrain federal spending powers, respect provincial jurisdiction and consult provinces on matters of shared interest.

It sounded good at first, particularly the lower spending part, but fell off a bit in practice over time. Especially when the consultation revealed a consensus in the National Assembly against things the Conservatives were fixed on doing, like destroying the long-gun registry. (Quebec would see them in court.)

At first blush, a sovereigntist party has little interest in consulting or cooperating with a federal government in Ottawa. The more dysfunctional the relationship with the rest of Canada, the stronger the case to get out.

But the road to a Marois majority falls away if chaos and crisis prevail in voters' minds. Credible and competent government across a range of issues lead the way to wooing more votes and winning more seats.

So what's ahead for Canada-Quebec relations: where is collaboration most likely to be found and what issues put them on a collision course?

1. Justice issues

The strongest weapon Marois can wield is a Quebec consensus: the oft-discussed phenomenon for near-unanimity across parties and opinion polls on certain issues.

Watch for it on justice issues, predicted Parti Québécois MNA Bernard Drainville on CBC Radio's The House

Drainville cited opposition to the destruction of the long-gun registry (on which Quebec has the upper hand in court so far), tougher treatment of young offenders and the appointment of unilingual judges as issues on which most Quebecers speak as one.

"We're going to act upon these demands based on a consensus we will achieve at the National Assembly," Drainville told host Evan Solomon. And he went a step farther, crediting the Harper government's disregard for this Quebec consensus with boosting support for the PQ.

"I think part of the result of this week's election can be explained by this very confrontational, closed-minded, disrespectful attitude on the part of the Harper government," Drainville said.

Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe agrees Marois will pursue a strategy of unanimous motions in the National Assembly to bolster her demands from the federal government.

"If she succeeds, well that's a plus. If Harper says no, she says 'well, look at the situation: it's unanimous in Quebec and Ottawa is saying no,'" Duceppe told Solomon. "I think she has a win-win on that."

The Charest government had already initiated a constitutional challenge on Senate reform too, and there's no reason to think Marois won't grab that baton from her predecessor with enthusiasm, insisting on Quebec's right to be consulted before changes are made to its representation.

2. Employment Insurance

The Parti Québécois platform called for Quebec to run its own employment insurance scheme, which could offer more flexibility to craft social policy around unique leave provisions. It would also put Quebec's share of the EI fund, which ran lucrative surpluses in better economic times, in Quebec's hands.

"Employment insurance has been federal jurisdiction since 1940," Finley told the Canadian Press the day after the election. "We haven't heard from Quebec, but we expect we would hear from provincial officials, like we always do, if they have something they'd like discuss."

That sounds like a flat "no" to a wholesale transfer, but a willingness to consider changes to parts of the program where an economic benefit could be realized.

Open federalism, anyone?

The PQ platform also called for Quebec's share of federal international assistance to be returned to Quebec to allocate as it sees fit. The minister for CIDA isn't likely to agree to that. Nor is the heritage minister likely to entertain demands for federal cultural funding to shift to provincial hands.

3. Trade and other international negotiations

Quebec was given a seat at UNESCO to fulfil an early Harper campaign pledge. The PQ platform appears to push for an even greater role for Quebec in any international negotiations that concern it, including perhaps environmental agreements or trade talks.

Any attempts to interfere in international trade talks could be particularly vexing to the Harper government, which has prioritized international trade deals with the European Union and Asia-Pacific countries as central to its economic growth strategy. 

But one imagines a rather sticky situation if, for example, federal negotiators start fiddling with the Quebec dairy industry's supply management system in a potential deal with European or Pacific partners.

Why should Quebec dairy farmers agree to sacrifice their relative security to help sell Alberta's beef? It wouldn't be the first time Quebec dairy farmers turned on federalist politicians who didn't have their back.

Equally contentious could be rules limiting a province's ability to support its own with "buy local" policies, which feature in the PQ platform for such sectors as the forest industry.

4. Environmental and energy issues

The platform also calls for a greater role in environmental and energy issues.  And here's where Harper may be facing off against not just Marois but a full Quebec consensus again.

The Harper government's moves in international climate change talks, for example, have found little favour in Quebec.

"Who picked the fight in the first place?" Drainville said on The House. "Why is it that on issues like Kyoto we cannot be listened to?"

Even under Charest, Quebec pursued its own environmental and energy agendas. But while Charest may have been willing to at least entertain Council of the Federation talks about a national energy strategy, the PQ platform articulates Quebec's desire for its own action plan.

That may suit Harper just fine.

The federal government appears happy to leave calls for a national energy strategy to the premiers to sort out (or not).

Its approach to environmental regulations, such as the recently-announced emissions standards for coal-fired electricity, offer provinces some flexibility.

Recent changes to streamline environmental reviews may see more assessments done exclusively by the provinces, with the full blessing of federal officials keen to shed the cost and bureaucracy. That PQ demand has already been met.

5. Language and culture

Marois has promised a new language law to boost the use of French, a secular charter to suppress some religious symbols and even a provincial constitution to enshrine the PQ's vision of Quebec's values.

That may conflict with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and court challenges may ensue from minority groups who object. Quebec has the option of using the Constitution's notwithstanding clause to override the discrepancy.

The federal languages commissioner cautioned Marois last Friday about respecting minority rights.

But would the federal government intervene? Nothing requires it to. Harper may stand back and leave the identity questions to Quebecers.

And that's where the National Assembly minority comes in. Using a revision of Quebec's bill 101 to undermine enrollment at English CEGEPs or place new demands very small businesses is unlikely to fly with one of the two opposition parties who would need to support it to pass.

"We want to apply bill 101 as it is now," Coaltion Avenir Québec MNA Gérard Deltell told The House, cautioning against disturbing a 35-year consensus between English-speaking and French-speaking Quebecers on language issues. "When you talk about bill 101 to apply it at the CEGEP level, no deal at all."

So what is Marois to do, then, to appease PQ hardliners?

When the realistic policy agenda is thin, there's always voter turn-off potential in a good symbolic spat.

And that's where Duceppe suggests Harper can't afford to rest on his laurels as the prime minister who presided over the recognition of the Québécois as a nation.

With or without a Quebec consensus behind them, saying no to Marois' demands "will show that, since he recognized Quebec as a nation, he is saying no to a nation," Duceppe says, warning Marois "will play with that."

And about that valium. Is the referendum peace only temporary? Might we need it yet?

"Quebecers are not decided but the question is still there," Duceppe warns. "Every time in Ottawa that this is not a clear decision they think everything is over. I think that is an error."

"The issue of a referendum will never be off the table... never," vows Drainville. "This is the ultimate instrument that will command the respect of both the federal government and the rest of Canada."

"This is what we want. We want respect."