Charest’s Loss May Be Harper’s Gain

It was hard for Harper to say no to “the most federalist Premier in my lifetime”…and the one man who laughed at his jokes.

Although the federal leaders executed Cirque Du Soleil worthy backflips to stay out of the Quebec election, the repercussions of this vote will be far reaching. Having a separatist attack dog in Quebec City – even one on a minority government leash – undeniably changes the dynamic in Ottawa.

So who benefits?

The Liberals

Traditionally, Canadians have tended to trust the Liberal Party on the national unity file, and this is an area where the Trudeau brand remains strong. While I’m sure Justin doesn’t want to become a shadow of his father, people will listen when he speaks out about national unity, so it’s an issue he could use to define himself.

Assuming of course, he manages to win the leadership. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But at the very least, another Liberal leader could still press the issue by sending Trudeau before the cameras or having Stephane Dion write an open letter to Pauline Marois. Hell, I think we know Stephane will be doing that, regardless of whatever the next Liberal leader wants.

And yes, no one seriously expects there to be a referendum call during Marois’ term as Premier. But what if she tries to forge ahead with some of her controversial religious and linguistic policies? That sounds to me like a great opportunity for a party looking to reclaim its position as the defender of minority rights to take a firm stand – even if it means alienating a few xenophobic pequistes.

The Conservatives

There was a time when Stephen Harper would shower Jean Charest with compliments at every press conference, but the love has faded from their relationship in recent years. Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Stephen Harper secretly rooting for a PQ victory last week. A Marois minority was likely his best-case outcome, politically speaking.

After all, it’s not like Stephen Harper has made a name for himself building consensus between the federal government and the provinces. For a man who is rarely seen smiling with the Premiers, a good enemy is more valuable than a shaky ally. And what a foil Marois is! This isn’t a “charming separatist” in the mould of Lucien Bouchard or Gilles Duceppe – outside Quebec, she is seen as destructive, closed-minded, and hateful. It’s a lot easier to say “non” to Pauline Marois than to “Captain Canada”, Jean Charest.

Conflict with a PQ government is inevitable, and Harper can score points outside Quebec by standing up to Marois. However, unlike Trudeau or Chretien, the threat of a referendum does not hang over Harper’s head, minimizing the risk of a tough position.

And it’s not like Harper has a lot to lose. Unlike…


Thomas Mulcair is in a delicate position. Many of the people who elected his Quebec MPs justed voted in Pauline Marois – but the people who elected his other MPs are not fans of hers. Don’t expect Mulcair to be rushing to the microphones the next time Marois says something controversial.

Further muddying the waters are Mulcair’s musings about starting a provincial NDP in Quebec. While this might help the NDP organizationally, it could box them into positions they’d rather not take. It’s one thing to go by Thomas in Quebec and Tom elsewhere – on policy, Mulcair is going to get burned on any inconsistencies.

The Liberals rightly recognize that national unity is an area where they can score points vis-a-vis the Dippers. They’ve already tried to smoke the NDP out by musing about a motion re-affirming support for the Clarity Act. Expect more of that as Marois pushes national unity front and centre. The NDP may have gotten a free ride on the Sherbrooke Declaration when Jean Charest was Premier and they were the third party in the house, but the level of scrutiny will be higher for a government-in-waiting, with the separatists in power.

Mulcair is going to have to defend positions that may not be popular in the rest of Canada. Bonne chance!

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5 responses to “Charest’s Loss May Be Harper’s Gain”

  1. The PQ has a minority government. Definitely a big plus for Harper. The problem is that minorities tend to last 2 years at most… Afterwards, it might be a different story for Harper, who will then be gearing up for a 2015 election.

    Generally speaking, I find Harper has been very lucky these past five or so years. Things have (generally) been going his way, going from minority to majority, and now this gift from the voters of Quebec. Like you said: if it was Bouchard, Harper would be in deep doodoo. But with Marois and her minority, it should be a lot less rough than it could have been.

  2. The fact that its a minority government will probably restrain Marois, similar in fact to how the Harper minority governments worked federally. I think too much is being made of this. It will either be a short-lived government or “surprisingly” moderate.

    On the NDP, a provincial NDP in Quebec is one of those things that will be a short term disaster politically but absolutely essential if they are to gain power at the federal level in the long run. Its been a long term goal of the party anyway, and to have credibility on the federal level they really need to thrash out a coherent position on the relations between Quebec and Canada.

    (though the various incarnations of the Conservatives have also tried to have it both ways on this issue and relied on soft separatist support from Quebec in federal elections. Really it should be more of a Liberal talking point that they are the most consistent federalist party nationally and provincially)

    The NDP’s problem in this area is that the left in Quebec has tended to also be separatist, but this has become self reinforcing in the absence of a federalist alternative on the left provincially, and its probably time to try to shake that paradigm. The fact that Mulcair comes from Quebec provincial politics helps, had he lost the federal leadership election he would have been the natural figure to lead a new Quebec provincial NDP party.

  3. I’m not sure this is so good for Harper. Somebody else noted the 2015 issue, but I think it is important to note how the PQ minority constrains Harper. In Quebec, Harper has nothing to lose but the country.

    At equilibrium, folks in Quebec do not support a referendum and are wary of the separatists. However, periodic grievances can temporarily upset that balance.
    -e.g. the spat over Charlottetown

    Because Marois has a minority, she has control over the timing of a Quebec election. Should any grievance issue come up, she could exploit it and gain the majority she nearly has already (particularly if she was able to galvanize Quebec Solidaire and Option Nationale behind her in the process). That could also set the stage for a referendum.

    Harper, like Chretien, is going to be constrained by Quebec (I submit that a big reason Canada stayed out of Iraq was the timing of the 2003 election). He is going to need to make sure his caucus avoids saying stupid things – something they aren’t very good at doing.

    Even if he succeeds at maintaining tranquil relations with Quebec, he does so at a political cost. He must avoid some moves that could be popular in the ROC. Moreover he must do so with little gains – going from 16% to 25% in Quebec will yield Harper few seats because his vote is concentrated in Quebec city, and because the NDP lead is prohibitively large.

    • Valid points, though I’m not convinced Marois neccesarily controls the timing of the next election. If she’s down in the polls or tries something extreme, the Libs and CAQ won’t hesitate to bring her down.

      And yes, you’re probably right that Marois will try to create problems for Harper. The difference between her and past PQ governments is that if she over-reaches, Harper has a lot more leeway to say no to her, since Marois’ government isn’t that popular or in a position to call a referendum.

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