Tuesday, March 27, 2007

But what does it all MEAN?

So apparently it's the Bloc that's out in the cold after Quebec's election. Very interesting.

That isn't to say the Liberals did well. Charest started the election with a comfortable majority. Now he finds himself the first Quebec PM in more than 40 years to fail to win a majority in his second term. And indeed, Quebec hasn't seen a minority government since the last century! The Liberals will stay in power - but only just. 48 seats for them, and a stunning 41 for the insurgent ADQ. (The Bloc finishes with a relatively meager 36 - its worst result in almost 20 years.)

Despite lots of chattering in the pundit class in Canada today, it's completely impossible to say what effect this will have on federal politics (and Stephen Harper's chances of winning a majority in the next federal election). The article linked speclates that

Even without the immediate threat of Quebec separation, the election has consequences for the rest of Canada. The vote could determine whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls a federal election this spring.

Appropriately vague. I can see it more easily the other way around. Let's face it - barely scraping by in Quebec - a province they absolutely depend on for federal majorities - is bound to be more than a little discouraging to the Grits - especially when you consider that (a) their provincial counterparts didn't lose to the PQ but rather an upstart party that threatens to change the balance of power in Quebec forever and (b) Stephen Harper personally helped in the Liberal victory by tossing several billion dollars in federal transfer payments to Quebec at the last minute, allowing Charest to ex post facto fill one nagging campaign promise (tax cuts). Dion can't possibly see this as a good sign.

Now maybe the idea is that Harper himself will call the election (that's indeed how the quote is worded), but I can't see that Harper wants to mess with this either.

The election night disappointment for sovereigntists might convince Harper to call a federal election soon and go for more seats at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois.

Well, yes, right - but any seats the PQ loses will most likely be made up by the Liberals. The only thing that's making Harper's current minority even remotely workable is the fact that the opposition is so split. Imagine the same number of Conservative seats, only now facing a Liberal opposition strengthened by the seats it picked up from the Bloc's losses? Yeah - thanks for the wishful thinking there CanadaPress, but Harper's smarter than that.

No, I think this speaks against an early election call. Actually, I don't think Harper feels free to call an election at all just yet anyway. That he doesn't want one should be obvious from his budget, which was designed to put the Liberals in an awkward position. If there's to be an election at all, the Liberals will have to spark it by voting down the federal budget. For the reasons given above, I'd be really surprised if they wanted to do that just now. But let's say they're thinking "hey, egg on our face in Quebec - but at least the Bloc is hurting worse than we are. The ADQ isn't a federal party, and their voters probably won't swing Tory in a federal contest, so maybe we can pick up seats in Quebec at the Bloc's expense." Even under that assumption, they still need the Bloc or the NDP to help them defeat the federal budget. Obviously, the Bloc is going to throw itself hard behind Harper on this vote. They absolutely do not want an election after what happened yesterday. So that leaves the NDP. How that goes is anyone's guess. All other things being equal, the NDP would vote against Harper just out of spite. That, in fact, is what their voters expect, so Layton will have some 'splainin to do if the NDP supports the government on the budget vote. But it's some 'splainin he can probably handle - because the NDP has quietly been bleeding voters faster than anyone else.

Layton's true to his principles - probably the most honest head-of-party in Ottawa. That makes him really easy to spot on some issues and hard to spot on others. On principle, and even in the strategic big picture, he'll want a vote now in the hopes of strengthening the Liberal presence in Commons (even at his own party's expense) - because that will drag Canada back to the left and stop the rightward momentum that's been building since last January. Of course he'd rather send as big an NDP caucus as possible, but the Bloc is more helpful on the environment than his union issues, and it's ultimately the union issues that win him votes and motivate him personally. The Liberals are better allies. And having a vote now would pay off in the long run, I believe. If Layton's smart (and I'm not so sure he is), he'll know that taking a cut now but moving the consensus back to the left is an investment likely to pay off in the election after this one. Such is the life of a perpetual minority party. The 80s are over; they missed their chance at real major-party status.

On the other hand, it must rattle Layton's nerves a bit that he's losing voters - especially since the NDP did really well for itself in the last election. If I'm not mistaken, they polled their best results since the halcyon days of Mulroney's second majority at 29 seats. That's a result Layton might rightly take pause in assuming he can ever get again. He certainly wouldn't get it in the next election - but it may be that no matter how much stronger the Liberals get in this election, he can't get it again in his tenure. The NDP caucus is more "naturally" about 10 seats shy of what it has now.

So this is what I mean by it being a hard call. When all is said and done, I just don't think anyone knows what effect Quebec's election will have on federal politics in the short term. It's even harder to say in the long term - since that depends on a great number of factors, including who wins the next federal election and how much they do for Quebec. I will nevertheless make a guess: sovereignty is fading as an issue, and Quebec is swinging right. I don't want to say how many seats Harper can take in Quebec in 2007 (if any), but I will predict that it's the Bloc that is about to be replaced and not the Liberals. The ADQ will stick around as a force to be reckoned with; its best days are ahead of it.

If nothing else, the results are good for Canada. The threat of dissolution that's been hanging over the country since roughly 1989 has largely abated, and federal politics seem to be headed to a healthier two-party system. The Liberals can no longer count on governing, and this is a good thing for everyone. More importantly, cracks are starting to show in the Ontario-Quebec axis, finally giving the West some relief. So in addition to a reprieve from the sovereignty issue, Canada is probably closer to being a single, integrated nation now than ever before.

The man who deserves, but will never get, credit for all this is Stephen Harper. I admit I pulled out some hair in frustration with the "Quebec is a nation with united Canada" stunt last year. That wildly unpopular move (70% of polled citizens downright hated it) seemed so transparently a political stopgap that everyone was ready to call Conservative credibility dead in the water. But consider now that Harper might have actually shown the country the way out of the woods on the sovereignty issue. He gambled (and won, it seems) that Quebec itself (the Bloc notwithstanding) really just wants to feel "special." It doesn't want to go to all the trouble of setting up embassies and training an army and all the other stuff that goes with being an independent country. Quebec likes its comfortable lobby, but the nationalist rhetoric is hotter than the reality. So throw them a bone and hope one of the local parties snaps it up. And this is exactly what's happened. The ADQ is 120% vague on what it thinks about Quebec's status in Canada - but it's pretty clearly against sovereignty. Whether or not this poisons the well depends largely on where you stand - but from a pro-federalist perspective Harper seems to have succeeded where so many others have failed. Quebec will continue to be annoying, but it will no longer be a threat. Once again, what seemed like a fumble at the time turned out to be a trump. Harper's brilliant, and (lucky for him?) no one knows it.


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