Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

There Goes the Country

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Doubletake/Doubletalk, Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Wednesday December 21, 2005 at 5:30 pm)

It wasn’t long after the first debate in the Canadian election that Liberal leader, Paul Martin, made a pledge to fight separatism:

Later Martin told reporters: “I’m going to meet him (Duceppe) on every street corner, in every city and in every town and village in Quebec.”

A Quebec television station, TQS offered an opportunity to do just that yesterday. M. Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois, said yes. Mr. Martin said no.

Liberals are now saying it makes no sense for Mr. Martin, a national leader, to debate a leader of a party that runs no candidates outside Quebec.

Does Mr. Martin frequently say things which make no sense? Sure: his claim that it’s the job of the Prime Minister to “defend” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (it’s the Courts’ job, actually, more on which later); his grandstanding jabs at non-Kyoto countries doing a better job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions than Canada; and his claims that merely continuing the funding levels of an existing program constitutes the introduction of something bigger and better.

But surely, having fought for federalism all his life, Mr. Martin has achieved some successes? Well, having been born in 1938, we might hope to see some improvement over time:

Well, that’s not much. How about something more substantial and pertinent? How about Liberal support in Quebec?

Note, those polling numbers haven’t gotten any better over the course of the campaign, no matter what histrionics the Prime Minister has offered.

But this is all a bit unfair. After all, a major factor in the Liberals’ performance has to be the sponsorship scandal.

If so, why doesn’t Paul Martin take the opportunity to distance himself from the past performance of his party? Exonerated by the Gomery report, why doesn’t he take the opportunity to distinguish himself and strengthen his party in a region where it has historically been strong?

If you’ve watched the man answer reporters’ questions, you’ll know why he won’t stand in a forum where he can’t get away with prepared remarks.

More worrying for federalists should be recent reports from the Maritimes. Apparently, the Bloc have a certain appeal out East, and small wonder. Privately, the Wonk is certain that many Canadians outside of Quebec would prefer Gilles Duceppe as a leader to most of the other candidates; and the Bloc has consistently bucked for Quebec’s interests in the house, rather than merely blockading the government in an attempt to tear the country apart. Recently, consider the Bloc’s insistence that the same-sex marriage bill be put to a vote as a condition for extending the House of Commons’ Spring Session this past year, without which it remains uncertain that the Liberal government would have slated the bill for a final vote (easier to delay while claiming to support the policy than to actually implement it and pay a political price — see “decriminalizing marijuana”).

Moreover, pressed by the new PQ (the BQ’s provincial cousin) leader to clarify his own position on the federal election, Quebec Premier (and Liberal) Jean Charest has suggested that some of the Conservatives’ proposals offer encouraging signs for Quebec’s interests. Despite Paul Martin’s reply that the Liberal plan has much to offer Quebecers, such approval could make votes for Conservatives more agreeable in a province which has long avoided that. Given the combination of anger with the Liberal party, desire for a federalist voice, and support from the Liberal Premier, some votes could slip from the Liberals’ grasp in crucial ridings. There are no polls recent enough to show whether this has had any immediate effect on the electorate. It’s unlikely to have much effect, considering Steven Harper’s uncelebrated (if passable) French skills, but a little means a lot in this campaign.

The PQ Leader (Andre Boisclair) isn’t the only one who might like some clarification.

Given all this, the Prime Minister’s refusal to debate sends a bad message to all sides. Soft federalists hearing the Liberal excuse might be excused themselves for wondering how Mr. Martin plans to fight separatists if he can’t engage with them on principle. Soft sovereigntists will see cowardice, countered only by claims sounding like entitlement from the mouth of an anglophone instead of the vision and heart which grounds the separatist position. Mr. Martin recently offered the sound of the following fury:

“You are not going to take my country away from me with some trick, with some ambiguous question,” he said.
“This is my country and my children were born and raised in Quebec, and you’re not going to go to them and say that you’re going to find some back-door way of taking my country or dividing Quebec family against Quebec family.”

Mr. Martin was responding to a question pointing out that he had never supported the controversial Clarity Act before wielding it like a rubber sword earlier in this campaign. But this response, however passably deflective, is far from adequate to the task of defending Canada.

It’s simply not the way to go: “my” country, not “ours”, and in English, to boot. In putting things that way, isn’t the Prime Minister himself dividing Quebec family against Quebec family by setting “his” family apart from anyone else’s who might opt for sovereignty? Ah, but the separatists did it first — their fault.

It’s also uncertain that a province-wide referendum campaign constitutes a back-door. If Mr. Martin is referring to the idea that the question being asked is so misleading as to prevent voters from knowing the separatists’ purpose, he’s treading on dangerous ground. Is suggesting that Quebecers are too stupid to understand what sovereigntists are after really the way to sway their votes?

Yes, it is. Just not to your side.

Such rhetoric plays superbly in Ontario, where anglophone throats choke forth cholerous French-sounding dipthongs at the mere thought of Quebecois separatists rending families asunder. In Laval, they probably laugh. If they bother to listen, that is.

On the whole, bad signs for the Liberals in Quebec — the Prime Minister hasn’t found a way to boost his party there, yet.

Worse signs for Canada, if this is the best defence it can get.

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