Friday, December 26, 2008

Harper Following Mulroney’s Lead

As most are probably aware by now, Stephen Harper has appointed 18 new members to Canada’s Senate, I wrote of it here on December 23rd. And while CTV broadcaster Mike Duffy is likely the most well known, it is the appointment of former Parti Québécois member Michel Rivard which is drawing a lot of the fire. M. Rivard is a former MNA, (Member of the National Assembly) for Quebec’s separatist Parti Québécois. He switched allegiances however, and started working for the Canadian Alliance back in 2000.

It seems obvious that Stephen Harper is once again back to the game of wooing soft separatist support in La Belle Province. Some had speculated that Harper was burning bridges in Quebec when his government was on the brink of defeat, faced with the prospect of being replaced by a coalition of Liberals and New Democrats supported by the Bloc. In English he lambasted the legitimacy of a government drawing support from a separatist party. In French his rhetoric was far more subdued, and he used the more gentle term ‘Sovereigntist’ when speaking to Quebec’s media.

Stephen Harper realizes, like most successful Canadian politicians, that in order to achieve any success in forming a government, that it is very difficult to do without electing a significant number of MPs from Quebec. For the majority of Canada’s history Quebec was a wasteland for the Conservatives, voting almost exclusively Liberal in election after election. It was this stranglehold which enabled the Grits to attain the status of Canada’s ‘Natural’ governing party.

Brian Mulroney was finally able to break their grip by inviting soft separatists into the Conservative fold with the promise of constitutional renewal for Quebec. When his efforts failed with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, the Bloc Québécois was born, created by former friend and cabinet minister Lucien Bouchard. But Mulroney had shown the way for Conservatives wishing to win votes in Canada's second most populous province.

Stephen Harper had deftly played to the soft separatist constituency with his recognition of Quebecers as a ‘nation’ within Canada. Most were expecting the number of Conservatives elected in Quebec to double to around 20, likely resulting in a Conservative majority government. That was until Harper announced proposed cuts to arts and culture along with a tougher stance on youth crime, neither of which played well in Quebec.

I’ve traveled far and wide in Quebec. I’ve often visited Montreal and Quebec City, and I’ve twice been out to the Gaspe Peninsula, as well as up to the Ville Marie area in the northeast. Quebecers in my view are Canada’s most liberal and socially minded citizens. Union membership is higher per capita than in any other province, hardly anyone under the age of 70 goes to church, and arts and culture are high on the priority list for many. They’re also uncomfortable with labeling a teenager ‘felon’ for what may be a simple matter of youthful indiscretion.

And just as they’re willing to forgive a teenage offender his or her crimes, they will also be more than willing to forgive Stephen Harper. The appointment of Rivard will be well received by those who view separation as an option, as opposed to a religion. The hard core separatist vote will still go to the Bloc of course, but in my opinion that constituency only represents about 20 per cent of the total population.

Even if the Conservatives manage to survive when this suspension is lifted, (and I do think they will) Harper knows that Canadians will probably be headed to the polls within a year. The Liberals seem rejuvenated under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff and Harper knows that the next election will not be as easy as the last two. If he’s to hold onto the keys of 24 Sussex Drive he’ll need all the seats he can get in Quebec. With the Liberals attracting most of the staunchly federalist vote, Stephen is left to follow in Brian’s footsteps, attracting wavering separatists.

Comments as always are welcome.

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