Beau Risque

Couillard will try to make history by becoming Quebec's first bearded Premier in over 100 years.
Couillard will try to make history by becoming Quebec’s first bearded Premier in over 100 years.

The Quebec Liberal leadership race drew few headlines outside the province, but everyone is paying attention to newly elected leader Philippe Couillard now:

Quebec Liberal leader Couillard sets sights on Constitution signing

After a convincing victory on Sunday as new Quebec Liberal party leader, Philippe Couillard has his sights set on becoming premier and steer the province into signing the Canadian Constitution.

By the time Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, Mr. Couillard believes he can persuade the rest of Canada to embark on a new round of constitutional talks that would accept Quebec’s “distinct” or “specific” character within Canada.

I’m not sure this is the battle cry I’d be sounding if I was just elected opposition leader in a province which is literally falling apart, but Couillard’s words bear attention. After all, there’s a reasonable chance he’ll be sitting in the Premier’s chair come 2015, in which case this will likely be an election issue. If he’s not Premier, then there’s a pretty good chance a referendum will be looming, in which case this will definitely be an election issue.

The real question is whether Couillard can find a federal dance partner for his constitutional tango.

Justin Trudeau has been categorically opposed to re-opening the constitution, getting into a heated argument with Jean Lapierre on this topic in December (It’s amazing how many substantive positions one winds up taking even while being accused of running a “photo op” campaign). Although some Quebec Liberals will be uncomfortable at the prospect of a Couillard-Trudeau sparing match, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen the federal and Quebec Liberal leaders in anything resembling an electoral alliance so this wouldn’t be a new dynamic.

The real question is whether Harper or Mulcair line up with Couillard. An all-beard alliance between former Cabinet colleagues Mulcair and Couillard makes a certain amount of sense. On the 30th anniversary of the Charter last year, Mulcair promised “to work to ensure that one day [the charter] becomes part of a Constitution that includes us all“. The one stumbling block may be Mulcair’s plans to start a provincial NDP in Quebec, but that was always a bit of a hair brained idea, and I’m sure it’s one he would gladly let die if he can count on the PLQ’s machinery next campaign.

Harper has been less eager to re-open the constitution, but if his support sags in Ontario, he will need to win new seats in Quebec to preserve his majority – and he may see this beau risque as a means to that end. Moreover, 2015 could be his last election, and Harper is still a Prime Minister without a legacy. It’s not like they name airports after you for cutting the GST 2 points. It would only be natural for him to want to accomplish what Trudeau and Mulroney could not, knowing he can always exit stage right if he fails. Moreover, a new round of constitutional talks would allow Harper to follow through on his long-stated desire for an elected senate and a more decentralized federation. If he truly wants to reshape the country, what better way to do so than a new constitution?

That said, the man hasn’t exactly been inviting the Premiers over to 24 Sussex for homemade lasagna on a regular basis, so it seems unlikely he’d want to subject himself to weeks or months of debate and negotiation. Harper has always been a cautious politician, and a new round of constitutional talks borders on foolhardy. Although success would become his legacy, so would failure, and that’s the far more probable outcome. Exiting politics as the man who put the country through another round of constitutional strife and re-ignited the separatist movement would likely not help the hockey book sales in retirement.

So when Couillard is looking for dance partners in 2015, he’d be best to extend his hand to Mulcair.

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6 responses to “Beau Risque”

  1. Oh, for God’s sake.

    Couillard should just drop the damn subject.

    Quebeckers aren’t interested; other Canadians are repulsed at the very idea; and there’s no way the country will agree to be blackmailed into giving Quebec even more special powers, especially not when the province is financially dependent on transfers. Pursuing this would be folly.

    I also doubt that Mulcair is too eager to try persuading the rest of Canada to enter constitutional negotiations. I expect he’s already well aware that he would not receive a supportive response.

    • On he other hand, maybe Quebeckers tired of the PQ’s language fascism would endorse a federalist’s bid to declare Quebec’s commitment to Canada in a big way. Are there enough Quebeckrs feeling that way? I have no idea. That would appeal to me were I a Quebecker, but I am an anglophone who’s never lived in Quebec, and I don’t particularly understand politics in that province.

      And you are right that there is little appetite in the rest of Canada for concessions to Quebec, so that would make for a politically difficult go of it.

      I think this also has the potential to backfire on Couillard, as it might have the opposite intended effect. That is, maybe the separatist movement will flourish under a revived, election-defining separatist/federalist debate.

      • I do live in Quebec now, and I think many francophones are starting to realize how destructive the language nonsense is. However, it seems there’s nobody left for them to vote for, because Couillard has indicated that he might consider supporting Bill 14 (the new stronger lanuage law) if there are amendments. That on top of raising the national unity issue.

        I am… discouraged.

  2. I wonder how the Tories would react to this one.

    They have made quite a few promises to bring about some kind of constitutional reform, most notably in reference to reform of the Senate. But also to the inclusion of property rights in the charter.

    I doubt they would want to pursue Charlottetown Accord or Meech Lake Accord, however, if they keep pushing Senate reform as they have I could see them getting roped into Couillard’s gambit.

  3. Instead of constitutionally granting Quebec new special powers, why not just lock in the ones they already have?

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