Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

The Politics of Failure

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Sunday May 14, 2006 at 9:27 pm)

Can this man make them work again?

Not long ago, the frosty wonk had the pleasure of meeting one of Mr. Ignatieff’s young Turks. The suggestion that another candidate had a better policy platform for the party was met by the angry retort that anyone could do those things. True enough. If Mr. Ignatieff isn’t ashamed to borrow good ideas, he might do well.

The question is, what ideas will he borrow?

He’s already suggested that he’s willing to borrow ideas from rival candidate Stephane Dion. What else?

A recent speech launching his Quebec campaign offers a few disappointing hints.

I believe in federalism of recognition and of respect. Respect for provincial jurisdictions. Recognition of Quebec’s specificity. And respect for truth.

Sounds great. But isn’t this the same kind of vague, noncommittal approach to serious policy issues that characterized his predecessor’s campaigns? Ignatieff sure seems to think so:

Think of Quebec’s astonishing development over the past fifty years: all that happened within a federal system that evolved a federal system that met, and can continue to meet, the needs of Quebec.

I, too, am ready to meet those needs.

So. . .there wasn’t anything to fix in the relationship? No problems? Then why, oh why didn’t things work out better between the province and the Liberal party? Why losses to the BQ? Why losses to the long-vanquished Tories (Mulroney doesn’t count — proto-BQ need not apply)?

I’m also tackling the myths from the past, such as a federal government that shackles provinces, a federal government that steamrolls over them.

This isn’t just compelling, it’s arguable. There’s no question that separatists exaggerate the problems with federal-provincial relations, perhaps to the point of making it a myth; but can Ignatieff change that? Can he really dispel such a myth?

Those who already side with federalist forces might already agree, but then, it’s not clear that they’re all on the Liberal side — the recent election may have shown that. At least some of the Tory gains in 2006 in the province came from the Liberals, and the overall growth in voter turnout may also have been at least partly due to federalists finding a viable voice in the Conservative party.

That’s why dispelling myths will take more than telling Quebecers what they are and what they have. Harper gained support there through concrete pledges to specifically change provincial-federal relations. In return, Ignatieff, who claims he’s fighting Harper, suggests that the two sides undertake new joint programmes:

So, let’s work together on a Canadian productivity strategy.

This will include programmes for infrastructure, science and technology, energy, and minority and aboriginal youth. Is anything left out? Certainly: the line between federal and provincial jurisdiction.

Ignatieff insists that it be respected, to be sure:

Let’s work together, but be careful not to step into each other’s jurisdictions. The Federal government must respect provincial jurisdictions. The provincial governments must also respect the Federal government’s legitimate jurisdictions.

But what does that mean? Isn’t it just more sitting at tables and bickering, regardless of his plea for an end to the very same thing? It’s completely unclear where the boundary lies in the very areas he indicates. In fact, not one is uncontroversial; and he offers nothing to say where these lines can be drawn, beyond his earlier insight:

Everything’s always worked out before.

Perseus fought the mythical Medusa with a mirrored shield; Theseus fought the mythical Minotaur with a ball of yarn. Clearly, myth-slaying has become still less substantial in the intervening years.

Respecting jurisdiction is fine when you know what it is, but the agreements of those fifty years have failed to clarify jurisdictions, even if they’ve been very successful at moving little pieces of paper from place to place. In fact, it has been these very joint programmes which have muddied the boundaries between levels of government and lent this political debate real force. More of the same is unlikely to help.

If Mr. Ignatieff is bold enough to share his vision of these boundaries, he might prove that he has what it takes to find and walk a dividing line. If not, he’s simply borrowing one of the worst ideas the Liberals ever had: that their undisclosed vision of federalism was enough to win Quebec; and that’s a plan for failure.

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