It’s the most exciting assignment a senior official can land: preparing strategies on how federal institutions should respond to an immanent threat by separatists. In the first instance, the advice is for the PM’s eyes only; it tells him how to lead a threatened federation. It’s dramatic; your drafts go with you when you retire to write your memoirs.
With the leader of the Party Quebecois Pauline Marois ahead in the polls in the Quebec election, it’s unsurprising to learn from John Ibbitson of the Globe and Mail that Harper’s team has already fleshed out responses A through B.
The brainy dramatists around a fresh Marois government will make a series of individual constitutional demands. They assume that Harper will reject them, thereby fueling Quebec alienation and separatist sympathies. Specifically, they’ll call for complete control by Quebec of unemployment insurance, culture, communications, and immigration programs and policies—all acknowledged today as constitutional activities of the federal government.
According to federal officials who are not authorized to speak publicaly, Harper will remain the steadfast, ugly target he is right now:
“To these and any other demands Stephen Harper will just say no. The Prime Minister will declare that he has no mandate from the Canadian people to negotiate with a separatist government over a series of measures that would lead to the slow-motion breakup of the country.
“He will say as well that the Conservative government remains focused on the economy: on creating jobs, improving productivity, expanding trade and eliminating the deficit. He will urge the government in Quebec to do likewise. This is Plan A.”
As pre-election federalist spin—which this "leak" may well be—it has a certain brutish logic: tell Quebeckers that PQ games are a waste of time. Unfortunately, it also protects Marois from substantive questions in Quebec about what’s best for Quebec.
Why make Harper’s temperament the issue before any of these demands have won informed support amongst Quebeckers? Why must Harper first stand up for Canada? Why should he appear to fear what Quebeckers may think of these ideas in the first place?
It’s sexy for prime ministers to look stout-hearted against dangerous ideas. However, Marois proposals to expand Quebec’s “toolkit” can as easily be characterized as insincere, self-defeating bluff.
Might it not be best for Harper to improve his ability to explain himself everywhere rather than have his presumed opposition used to glamorize weak ideas by his opponents?
If the PQ does win, Harper might consider first just being curious about what Marois has in mind. Since the powers she says she wants are incontestably within the federal jurisdiction now, why shouldn’t the federal government consult with Quebeckers directly?
Why not ask Quebec unions and employer groups whether they really want their own unemployment insurance program and, then, how they’d like to administer and pay for it?
Why not ask Quebec’s arts community directly whether they’d like Ottawa to stop funding arts projects entirely and whether they’d rather only lobby Quebec City for support?
Do Quebec employers and citizens' groups want the Quebec government to create a “Quebec citizen” who could visit the rest of Canada, but wouldn’t be a registered landed immigrant to Canada? Do Quebeckers want to try to sell Quebec internationally as a place to live and work, without being eligible to become Canadian?
A Canadian federalist can ask these questions sincerely. The PQ’s latest demands wouldn’t necessarily lead to the “slow motion break-up of Canada”. It wouldn’t be hard to argue, however, that they’d make government in Quebec more expensive and more centralized, and Quebec less attractive internationally.