Harper’s hands-off ap­proach to Que­bec and its legacy

Truro Daily News - - OPINION - Chan­tal Hébert Chan­tal Hébert writes on na­tional af­fairs for the Toronto Star.

Did Stephen Harper’s ap­proach to Que­bec ac­cel­er­ate the de­cline of the sovereignt­y move­ment, or was the for­mer prime min­is­ter just the ac­ci­den­tal ben­e­fi­ciary of a col­lec­tive de­sire on the part of Que­be­cers to move on from the dead­lock over the prov­ince’s po­lit­i­cal fu­ture?

In a text pub­lished in the mag­a­zine L’ac­tu­al­ité on the oc­ca­sion of the fifth an­niver­sary of the Parti Québé­cois’ short-lived 2012 vic­tory, for­mer Harper ad­viser Carl Val­lée ar­gues the Con­ser­va­tives de­serve sig­nif­i­cant credit for hav­ing con­trib­uted with their poli­cies to bring the Que­bec con­ver­sa­tion in line with that of the rest of Canada.

There is no doubt that the Harper decade was not a good one for the sovereignt­y cause.

By the time the Con­ser­va­tives lost power in 2015, sup­port for Que­bec leav­ing the fed­er­a­tion had fallen to its low­est level since the early 1980s.

The Bloc Québé­cois was a spent par­lia­men­tary force, hav­ing failed in two con­sec­u­tive elec­tions to win the 12 seats re­quired to qual­ify for of­fi­cial party sta­tus in the House of Com­mons.

The Parti Québé­cois was back in op­po­si­tion in the na­tional as­sem­bly af­ter premier Pauline Marois’ bid to trade a mi­nor­ity man­date for a gov­ern­ing ma­jor­ity af­ter 18 months in power back­fired.

The party has yet to re­cover from that de­feat.

This week­end, its rank and file will hold a vote of con­fi­dence in its lat­est leader. The up­com­ing first year an­niver­sary of Jean François Lisée’s lead­er­ship vic­tory next month will be no cause for cel­e­bra­tions.

With a year to go to the next Que­bec elec­tion, the PQ is in third place in vot­ing in­ten­tions, well be­hind the rul­ing Liberals and the sec­ond-place Coali­tion Avenir Québec.

Ac­cord­ing to Val­lée, Harper con­trib­uted ac­tively to this steady de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of sovereign­tist prospects by prac­tis­ing a less-in­va­sive form of fed­er­al­ism than his Lib­eral pre­de­ces­sors and by sys­tem­at­i­cally re­fus­ing to en­gage in rhetor­i­cal de­bates with his sovereign­tist foes.

Af­ter the PQ formed a mi­nor­ity govern­ment in 2012, Val­lée says Harper was urged by the civil ser­vice to be­come more proac­tive in show­cas­ing Canada and the fed­eral govern­ment in Que­bec.

But the then-prime min­is­ter was wary of strate­gies that he found rem­i­nis­cent of the failed Lib­eral spon­sor­ship pro­gram. In­stead, he opted to de­cline to take what­ever bait premier Marois threw his way.

In do­ing all of the above, Val­lée ar­gues, Harper had a ma­jor hand in shift­ing the Que­bec con­ver­sa­tion from fed­er­al­ism-ver­sus-sovereignt­y to a left-ver­sus-right axis more aligned with that of the rest of the coun­try.

It is pos­si­ble to agree that Harper’s net im­pact on the stand­ing of fed­er­al­ism in Que­bec was pos­i­tive and to also find that it was not as much the prod­uct of a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy as a case of un­in­tended con­se­quences.

Harper’s hands-off ap­proach to the fed­er­a­tion’s so­cial union for in­stance had as much to do with the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s ide­o­log­i­cal dis­taste for govern­ment ac­tivism on the so­cial pol­icy front as with a Que­bec strat­egy.

For the record, it was Lib­eral prime min­is­ter Paul Martin – not his Con­ser­va­tive suc­ces­sor – who up­dated the tem­plate for asym­met­ri­cal fed­er­al­ism by spell­ing out Que­bec’s right to de­ter­mine its own health spend­ing pri­or­i­ties in the 2004 Health Ac­cord.

No re­cent prime min­is­ter was as un­pop­u­lar in Que­bec as Harper. That went a long way to make the virtue of not en­gag­ing in bat­tles of words with his sovereign­tist coun­ter­part a ne­ces­sity.

These were fights he would have had lit­tle chance of win­ning in Que­bec pub­lic opin­ion.

Else­where in the coun­try, they would have drawn at­ten­tion to his lim­ited ca­pac­ity to cham­pion Canada ef­fec­tively in a ref­er­en­dum.

Harper’s decade in power was a game-changer in Que­bec but maybe not in ways he nec­es­sar­ily in­tended.

In pre­sent­ing Que­be­cers with a ver­sion of con­ser­vatism that was alien to the ma­jor­ity that make up its pro­gres­sive main­stream, he pro­vided them with an in­cen­tive to re­con­nect with na­tional par­ties li­able to oust his party from power.

A crit­i­cal num­ber of Que­bec vot­ers did ac­cept the sovereign­tist premise that the val­ues that un­der­pinned Harper’s poli­cies at home and abroad were at odds with theirs. But most of them re­jected the con­clu­sion that leav­ing the fed­er­a­tion was their only re­me­dial op­tion.

From that per­spec­tive, Harper was not only an ar­chi­tect of the demise of the Bloc Québé­cois but also a driv­ing force be­hind the 2011 orange wave and the 2015 Lib­eral re­vival in Que­bec.

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