Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is Stephen Harper Crazy?

So now that the results are in and the press has moved on, what to make of Harper's Quebec resolution?

On the surface, it's an excellent illustration of how weird Canada is, and one of the (many) reasons I'm glad I don't live there. Here's the general picture. In Parliament there is a Party (the Bloc Quebecois) which is dedicated to the dissolution of Canada. Of course, they don't put it that way. They only want independence (or at least some measure of sovereignty) for Quebec; the rest of Canada can do as it pleases. But it's sort of hard to imagine how Canada would hold together without Quebec. More precisely, it's hard to see how Quebec leaving wouldn't result in a domino effect with the western provinces (starting with Alberta) going, then Ontario not wanting to pay for Newfoundland all by itself, etc.OK, so this party tables a motion which recognizes Quebec as a "nation," although it isn't at all clear about what this means. Probably it's meant to be something of a legal trojan horse - getting vague language inserted into the legal code that Quebec could exploit later...somehow...or something. So why bother? Well, it was introduced just ahead of local elections in Quebec, and the Bloc is just starting to regain its 1990s-era solid majority there again. (It paid off: the Bloc won 66% of the vote.) Now, Harper is PM by the skin of his teeth. The Tories don't really have a majority, nor a coalition - it's kind of strange that they form the government, actually. How it happened is this: Alberta voted Conservative as a rock-solid block (every riding in the province), BC and Saskatchewan both did their parts too. The West elected Harper, in other words - and he made up the difference with votes in rural Ontario and Quebec. In fact, there are 10 seats from Quebec in the Tory camp. But that's weird - the Tories NEVER take seats in Quebec. Well, right, and they never will again - all it is this time is an anti-Paul Martin protest vote from some of Jean Chretien's old cronies. They openly campaigned for the Conservative candidate in their districts (in areas where the Bloc is weak, one presumes) just to spite Paul Martin by forcing him from office less than two years after he FINALLY got elected. So the common press version goes that Harper is trying his damndest to shore up seats in Quebec for the next election. So when Duceppe tabled this "nationhood" bill for Quebec, Harper countered with a bill of his own, recognizing Quebec as a "cultural and linguistc nation within Canada." Supposedly, it's the "within Canada" bit that's important - the Bloc left this out of their own bill. But of course it's hard to see how this really sets back the Bloc's legal trojan horse much. It won't stop Quebec from holding another referendum that I can see, and in the meantime it might give them even MORE special privileges than they already have. And indeed, the Bloc ended up supporting Harper's bill ... along with everyone else: it passed 266-16. (This didn't stop them from voting for their own version at the same time, but theirs didn't pass.) What's weird about this is that 70% of the population (you know, the actual Canadians all these MPs supposedly represent) was opposed to it. 70% of the population opposed, yet it passed with over 90% of Commons in favor. WHAT'S UP?

Poor Stephen Harper. He didn't even get anything out of it. The Tories got trounced in the by-elections anyway, and he lost a cabinet minister out of the deal besides (Michael Chong resigned rather than recognize "ethnic nationalism"). Quebecers aren't stupid: they know who really gave them this bill, and the Bloc did nicely for itself at the polls. Soon it may once again be able to drum up a secession referendum - and who knows? Maybe it will pass this time.

So what was Harper thinking? I mean, surely he didn't expect anyone in Quebec to vote Tory on the basis of a watered-down version of Dueceppe's bill? What was everyone else thinking? How does it happen that something so unpopular passes with this kind of majority in Commons?

What a strange place Canada is. The government frequently plays Russian Roulette with the nation's future over Quebec, and yet the overwhelming sentiment of the population on the issue is a giant miserable groan.

I guess no political party wants to be the party that denied Quebec was a "nation." There would eventually be a price to pay. Ontario is where the real votes are, but Quebec is a somewhat-close second. (And unlike the Tories, all the other parties do regularly get seats in Quebec - especially the Liberals).

So what, if anything, is Harper smoking? Well, the media would say that it was all just a cynical short-term bid for votes. From the article linked above:

"This was really an atrocious idea," said Michael Behiels, a University of Ottawa historian who specializes in Quebec issues.

"It was all driven by the hope of very, very short-term political gain for Harper. It was an attempt to shore up the 10 seats from Quebec that he stood to lose (in the next election.)"

And also this:

"At first glance (Harper's motion) seemed brilliant, a master stroke," said Wiseman. "But these things can spin out of control. Brian Mulroney thought the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords were a great idea too."

But if that's the case then it's unfair to let the Liberals and the NDP off the hook: you don't get a 90+% majority vote on anything without substantial support from both parties after all.

I think there are (at least) two other interpretations, the second more interesting than the first:

  1. Harper did it for Canada. Maybe he really thought this was in Canada's best interest. The reasoning would be: the Liberals are already debating such a resolution ahead of their leadership convention (this weekend), which just so happens to be in Montreal. Issues of Federalism (Trudeau's legacy) therefore come to the fore in the contest (indeed, three of the most prominent opponents of Harper's Bill, aside from Michael Chong and Dalton McGuinty, are candidates for Liberal Party Leader). Duceppe saw an opportunity and grabbed it, hoping to sow dissent in the Federalist camps. Now the Liberals can do one of two things. They can block the Bloc's bill and table their own later (presumably one very similar to Harper's, specifically mentioning that Quebec is a part of Canada), or they can just support the Bloc's bill as it stands. In the first case, the end result is the same, only the Liberals get to pick up the pieces rather than Harper and the Tories, and he could kiss those 10 seats in Quebec goodbye forever. In the second case, he reasons there is a real danger to Canada: the Bloc would have managed to get a federal bill passed recognizing Quebec as separate in its specific wording, if not in overall intent. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em, it would seem - especially if this allows you some control over the details (which admittedly might turn out to be very important indeed here).

  2. He did it because he wants a less federal union. This is the interesting one, and something that the media isn't considering. What if Harper did it not for votes and not because it was inevitable, but because he knows it will open a Pandora's Box and he likes what's inside? A looser federation. It's certainly not inconceivable.

I wish the media in Canada would pay more attention to possibility #2 here. Western alienation is real, after all. The solid votes for the Tories in the last election probably had less to do with the fact that the party is conservative (though westerners in general, and Albertans in particular, do tend to be more conservative than the rest of the nation) and more to do with the fact that Harper is from Alberta. On his acceptance speech, in fact, one of the first things Harper said was that he wanted to make clear to Alberta and the rest of the west that "you said you wanted 'in' ... and you are 'in.'" Fine. So what if he's negotiating a less central union because this reduces the ability of Ontario and Quebec to continue to dictate policy for the rest of the nation? Is this just my dumb outsider's take on things, or is it possible something like this is actually going on? Harper's also big on the elected Senate idea, after all, and he's not ATB against scrapping first-past-the-post in favor of proportional representation. I don't think it's at all off the charts to suspect that there's more to this Quebec vote than simply heading off political opponents.

The trouble with too much speculation about this in the media is that it does get into ugly (well, from their perspective) questons about what Canada really is in the first place. All nations are artificial to some extent or another - but Canada's a more extreme example than most. It doesn't have any natural boundaries and doesn't really have a shared history. One could argue that the same is true of the US - but the US at least has the virtue of a more evenly-spread population and an enduring foundation myth. Power and population aren't terribly concentrated anywhere, and the various local regions blend in to each other. Canada, on the other hand, is Ontario (which is about a third of the population by itself) plus a bunch of less-than-willings along for the ride - either by accident (Quebec), or failure (Newfoundland - maybe the other Maritimes as well to lesser degrees), or because it just kinda happened that way and it's never been all that worth it to get up and leave (everyone else). Not to mention, leave and go where? It seems like too much trouble to form a nation of 3million or so, and the US isn't exactly taking applications. Not that most Canadian provinces would want to join the US anyway. Joining the US would cheat the Maritime provinces out of a pretty sweet wealth-sharing package. The West will be carrying its own weight soon (Alberta already is), true, but joining the US is a bit scary too. If you think you're a small fry in a nation of 10 provinces and 30 million people, try 50(+) states and over 300million! And so Canada just sort of IS ... and keeps on BEING ... year after year. But no one's totally sure why.

In the 70s Trudeau tried to give an answer to that question - and at the time it was a pretty good one. This is the Canada we know (and most people love) today: the touchy-feely, lib-left, "multiculturalism within a bilingual framework" social welfare state. But there are and always have been two major problems with this version: (a) it's ahistorical and (b) it's not representative.

First point first. Canada has never been and was never intended to be a centralized federation. That was something Trudeau came up with on his own - probably because he wasn't sure what country he was living in. Now granted, it's been HIGHLY centralized since the 1970s in many ways, but it's cobbled-together nature was always just below the surface. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a loose federation. In fact, it's probably a good idea. So no slight to Canada is really intended here. Quite the contrary - viewing the country as a loose collection of fellow travellers is a more accurate way to look at the situation on the ground, and local control is generally a good principle for any nation.

As to the second point, geography and demographics are important, and there's no denying that most of Canada is in Ontario. When you build a national identity as a merger between the most populous province (Ontario) and the squeakiest wheel (Quebec), you're necessarily leaving out everyone else. What holds it together, if we're honest, is a handful of bribes to the Maritimes. But the point is there are vast spaces in Canada that Ottawa just doesn't do a very good job representing. Federalism works in the US because the whole country isn't centered in, say, New York. Congress is something closer to a table of equals. But in Canada? Well, there's a lion, and he takes his share, and gives parts of it to some of the others, and so it goes. It's not exactly an inspiring national vision.

But alright, I'm not Canadian, so I don't really know all that much about it. What I wanted to say is that I think the press is giving unfairly shallow treatment to Harper's latest bill. It might be exactly as they say: a cynical vote-buying scheme that backfired, the worst consequences of which are yet to come. But then again, it might also be one of two other things: (a) an illustration of just how divorced from its people Canadian politics and politicians have become and (ironically) at the same time (b) a risky attempt to solve just this problem by shaking Pandora's Box a bit.

Of course, it might also be a cynical, but harmless, vote-buying scheme that simply amounted to nothing. The point is that we don't know so long as the press only quotes people who don't like Harper.


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