Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Is the Quebec drama over?

Standing in the ruins of ancient Rome, you don’t appreciate that the drama in our civilization is also dead. Then I cross the street, order a caffe, and go online. Suddenly, I’m reading that nothing big will ever change across the "English-speaking civilization" and also in the "French-speaking civilization" of Quebec.

The evidence is trending: Scotland could vote yes or no for independence and still keep the Queen and £; either another Bush or another Clinton will return to the White House in 2016; and an overwhelming majority of Quebecers say they like the "status quo."

Andrew Coyne has found it “impossible to overstate” the tectonic significance of federalists winning a clear majority in Quebec’s latest provincial election. Coyne divines that, since Quebecers “rejected secession without being offered any special inducement to do so,” they think Canada is not so bad, that they are happy with the "status quo."

Quebecers have settled for an unlovable impasse. The Canadian federation’s prime minister is wildly unpopular. Quebec federalists are tainted by scandal and, as well, are uniformly uncharismatic. Neither on the stage nor in writing do they offer positive change. Quebecers cherish their democracy but accept that the Clarity Act and Canada’s Supreme Court have made separation “unavailable.” The choice is only “the status quo or the status quo” — and, still, 75% of eligible Quebecers bothered to vote.

To begin with a technical problem:

The "Canadian status quo" — along with generalizations like the "Gilded Age," the "Trudeau Years," and the "Quiet Revolution" — is but some writer’s invention (usually employed as an insult). In any event, it doesn’t exist. Even as expressed opinion it only exists for an instant. And happy crowds only last in pictures. You invent; you don’t see agreement even on the smiling faces in Kim Jong Un rallies in North Korea. Votes decide who governs but they don’t tell us what those voters were thinking and will be thinking next.

The Quebec-Canada "status quo" was not endorsed on Monday night and wouldn’t be any safer today if 100% of Quebec adults had turned up to vote.

Much has been made of the poor showing of the Parti Quebecois — its worst performance since 1973. Yet I’m not aware of anyone suggesting that Stephen Harper is a better advocate for Canada than Jean Chretien, Pierre Trudeau, or Brian Mulroney. Apparently, Quebecers only spent their evenings reading scary stories about the Clarity Act and the hardhearted monetarists in Ottawa who would never let Quebec keep the Canadian dollar.

But what about the role of "personality" in the outcome? After all, it is politicians, not abstractions, that we reject or embrace when we vote.

Was Quebec’s election night about something bigger than the unappealing prospect of re-electing Pauline Marois? Has the PQ and its founding vision ever been so poorly represented?

In the two debates, hour after long hour, she complained about being questioned in a snap election that she called. On the cause dearest to her heart — Quebec nationhood — she insisted that the citizens of Quebec weren’t “ready” to discuss it. As if that discussion would be hard, unpleasant work, as if she found managing the status quo exhausting enough.

When witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Francis Fukuyama asserted that as a contest of ideas we had come to “the end of history.” Big politics in Berlin may be crowded out for now by building cranes and tourists. But big politics is still busy elsewhere, around the world and in Germany.

The thesis that Canada’s governance is settled won’t fly indefinitely in Quebec and certainly not in Western Canada. 

The "status quo" — never having to think about the constitution again — may be an attractive proposition. But is it sustainable? Old shoes that pinch are wearable — but only for a while and only until you try on a better pair.

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