Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

History History History History. . .0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday April 17, 2007 at 8:08 pm)

Stephane Dion, the Liberal Party of Canada’s leader, had an excellent opening this week. In response to a suggestion by new Quebec Opposition Leader, Mario Dumont, that negotiations on the constitution are in the offing (of the Atlantic, presumably), Dion put down a foot unused to treading on firm ground. He attacked the Prime Minister’s failure to clearly articulate his own constitutional position:

The thing [Mr. Harper] needs to do to prevent a problem is to speak out and say very clearly which powers, which responsibilities, he wants to transfer from the federal government to the provincial government,” said Mr. Dion in an interview Sunday. “If he continues to be vague and confused, I think it’s not good at all for the country. He owes that to Canadians.

And voiced an opinion strange to Canadians reared on an obsession with constitutional transformation as panacea:

. . .none of these issues that are facing us, including social justice … request a constitutional change to deal with. . .

All of which is good. Very good. Most of Canada is good and sick of debating constitutional issues, which strike them, rightly or wrongly, more as conflict over Quebec’s position in the constitutional order than any necessary transformation of a federal system which doesn’t seem to be falling apart just yet. Where there’s no smoke, there’s no fire, and Dion’s pointing that out both resonates with many Canadians (especially the Maritimers and Ontarians on which the Liberals rely) and gives him a firm, strong, and intelligible stance so sorely lacking in his recent work.

But then this comes along. He’s only just demonstrated an understanding — not of the constitution, as some have suggested — of the population’s attitude towards the constitution: “We like it, now shut up and govern.” How to follow that up? By trying to cast himself as a constitutional defender:

He noted, too, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other cabinet ministers have been conspicuously absent from charter commemoration events.

“I think every Canadian prime minister ought to make a point of publicly celebrating the charter,” he said.

One step forward, one back. What Canadians want, and let’s be clear about this, is not politicians outdoing themselves with displays of symbolic love. Neither is it blustering claims to establish their credentials as constitutional defenders. Paul Martin tried both, giddily claiming that Stephen Harper didn’t love Canada, and then proving his constitutional cred by offering up a clause of it on the altar of its own protection. Neither worked out very well for him.

To show so immediately keen a grasp on the right constitutional tack one day and show just the opposite the next is not a positive sign of much. Canadians are not afraid of losing the Constitution — they want politicians to follow it, not prate on about it.

At best, it shows that Dion is intuitively capable of resonating with the public, but incapable of deploying his natural understanding in strategic ways. Hence, a superb response to someone else’s statement, followed by a badly managed statement of his own.

At worst, it shows that what’s come before may come again. And this isn’t the first time that history is repeating itself with M. Dion, either.

La Belle Province No More0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, All Politics (Wednesday April 11, 2007 at 3:41 pm)

Liberal leader Stephane Dion commented yesterday on the recent Quebec election, suggesting that, contrary to many observations, the ADQ’s success in that province poses no threat to the Liberals’ hopes for federal seats.

Per M. Dion:

The votes for (ADQ Leader Mario) Mr. Dumont were in a large part protest votes. . .Mr. Harper [his federal opponent] cannot channel a protest vote because he is the government.”

An argument which could be disputed, to be certain. But that doesn’t undermine Dion’s point. After all, eight of the ten federal seats taken by the Conservatives in Quebec came at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, not the Liberals. If the Tories continued to snag seats at that stunning pace, the Liberals would lose only one more to them, while possibly gaining a few (Papineau, par example?) back from the BQ.

The ADQ won 37 new seats in Quebec, of which 20 came from the provincial Liberals and 17 from the Parti Quebecois. Those are fairly even numbers, and they mean that, even if the ADQ got some votes from the Liberals as a protest, they could not have achieved their victory without overtaking the PQ — a feat the Liberals had not accomplished in those ridings. If the ADQ poses a worrisome threat, it seems to be more portentous for the separatist parties than for the Liberals.

But if the federal Liberals think they have nothing to fear, they’re wrong. The main reason why they might not recognize the threat is that it didn’t emerge with the recent election, even if the recent election showed some of its symptoms. The real threat is the Liberal Party of Canada’s increasing isolation within Quebec.

Consider this: from 1945 to 1980, in thirteen consecutive elections spanning thirty-five years, the Liberals took fewer than 47 (of 65-75) Quebec seats only twice: once in 1958, when John Diefenbaker swept the country, and again in 1962, when he faced off against an Anglophone Liberal leader, the short-termed Lester Pearson. Over that time, the Liberals took more than 60 seats six times and more than fifty-five nine times. They averaged roughly 53% of the vote in Quebec, hitting a low of 39.2% in 1962 when Pearson first fought Diefenbaker and a high of 68.2% in 1980, when Trudeau returned to champion constitutional repatriation.

Now consider this: from 1984 to 2006, in seven consecutive elections spanning twenty-two years, the Liberals took 36 (of 75) Quebec seats in their best showing — 2000, against Joe Clark (who never did well in Quebec), Preston Manning (who barely spoke French), and Gilles Duceppe (who was scorned for weak campaigning). In four of those campaigns, they failed to win as many as 20 seats, and broke 25 only twice. They averaged roughly 33.5% over that span, hitting a high of 44.2% in the 2000 campaign and a low of 20.7% in 2006 (the second post-sponsorship scandal campaign).

Which shows a significant dip in Liberal fortunes between 1980 and 1984. No points to those who can guess why.

But that’s not all — there’s another interesting point to consider: 21 seats in Quebec are in Montreal. In all but two of the thirteen elections before 1984, the Liberals took a majority of the seats outside of Montreal. In no election since has that happened. In 2000, the Liberals’ best showing since 1980, they managed merely 16 of the 54 seats outside of that City. In five of those seven elections, they did no better than six such seats. The Liberal Party has clearly maintained its former grip on the City of Montreal, but it has lost its strength beyond.

What the numbers show is a far more dangerous threat to the Liberals than anything posed by the ADQ. If the 1997 and 2000 election victories had as much to do with the Bloc Quebecois’s poor campaigning as it did the Liberals’ own performance, then their two positive showings had more to do with the lack of a third option than it did with any efforts of their own.

The Liberals’ best seat total in the latter elections — 36 in 2000 — was eleven seats more than their worst performance in the former — 25 in 1958; but it was achieved with virtually the same percentage of the vote (44.2% vs. 45.6%). Their worst share of the vote in the former elections — 39.2% in 1962 — was only 5% behind their 2000 peak, and better than any other performance between 1984 and 2006.

What this suggests is that the Liberals are a different party in Quebec now than they were before 1984. Before 1984, they could count on taking 50% or so of the Quebec vote and built a majority starting from the roughly 50 seats they expected there. Since then, their expectations should be for roughly 35% of the vote and far too few seats to rest easy before hearing the Ontario numbers.

Since 1984, the Liberals have had to rely on Ontario for their bedrock, and with that under serious attack since the disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives in 2004, there are no signs that this is a sustainable long-term strategy. The West of Canada still looks unwelcoming to what overtures Liberals have made; and the Maritimes hold too few seats for even dominance on the scale of 1997 to make a stand there.

Which means that the Liberals are faced with a serious problem in Quebec — they have lost their long-term stronghold without finding an alternative. If they cannot break out of Montreal in the face of what now seems a second viable alternative to the separatists, they will have to find a new and unfamiliar way to build majorities. And that strange future brings a promise of minority status at best and certain weakness for some time to come.

Tales of the Quebec Election0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, A House Divided (Tuesday March 27, 2007 at 10:05 am)

The most telling moment of the 2007 Quebec election?

Not the mindless eagerness of the CBC in predicting Jean Charest’s defeat with 75% of the vote counted and his opponent holding a lead amounting to no more than 2.3% of what would be the final vote count.

Not the fact that it was a former high-up in the Quebec Liberal Party who founded the ADQ.

Certainly not that the PQ’s quest for sovereignty isn’t enough of an issue to carry the province.

It was the moment, during Mario Dumont’s speech at ADQ headquarters, where a crowd closeup showed a beaming, clapping woman. On her hat? A blue-on-blue “Harper 2007″ button.

Espèces de Crétin0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Golden Tacks, A House Divided (Sunday January 14, 2007 at 10:03 pm)

The announcement that the federal and provincial Quebec separatist parties will be working together to fight this year’s elections was, most likely, intended to strike fear into the hearts of federalists. It shouldn’t.

There are two possibilities: that they’ve done this before; or that they haven’t.

If they have, it hasn’t yet created the surge of separatist power that tears Canada asunder.

If not, there’s just one question: why should it take fifteen years of coexistence before two non-competing parties with identical interests decide to work together on their common mission?

Is that evidence of a strategic genius that federalist forces should fear, or of a bumbling self-sabotage which should undercut this separatist boast?

Crystal Gazing 20070

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, The Elephant, A House Divided, Trillium, Crossroads of Culture (Sunday December 31, 2006 at 6:06 pm)

The Flash-Frozen Wonk isn’t really in the prediction racket. This is a house of analysis, not divination. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to think about it.

What that means is watching stories; and there are a few big ones in the coming year:

Tack to the Middle
Will Prime Minister Stephen Harper shift to dealing with middle-class ambitions in the coming year? Will that be enough to contain the opposition in a ring of suburban Tory strongholds?
Middle East
Does the US Democratic party have any way to impact the Iraqi situation? Will they bother to try, given the possibility that any improvement could still be claimed as a victory by the Republican administration?
East of Ontario
Will Quebec’s Premier get something worthwhile out of a federal government eager to secure its inroads in La Belle Province? Will the recent boost in Liberal fortunes prove as temporary as the economic boost from their convention?
Ontario at the Hustings
A government whose blunders (Health Premium) are long-behind them is headed to the polls. Will any issue large enough to rile Ontarians crop up to ruin Premier Dalton McGuinty’s hopes of a second majority?

That’s more than enough for one year, and far too much for one night. Here’s looking to the future, and a great New Year.

Condition: Specified0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, A House Divided (Wednesday October 4, 2006 at 12:18 am)

Headline from the National Post:

Holes drilled in concrete to determine condition of failed Quebec overpass

Condition would be ‘failed’ — that’s what the headline says. But of course, that’s too obvious, isn’t it?

Caveat Lector0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, A House Divided (Monday June 5, 2006 at 6:23 pm)

The CBC had a warning this morning for the citizens of Quebec:

Hash Shipment Bound for Montreal

Street prices were expected to plummet as a large, well-publicized supply was about to flood the local market. Dealers, desperate to unload their old stock before the bottom fell out of the market, began a bitter price war. Like those between WalMart and Target, Macy and Gimbel’s, and Messalina and Scylla, casualties were high and public concern low.

The prospect of a buyer’s market kept many would-be buyers at home today. “Why hustle that extra fiddy when it’s gonna be twenny tomorrow? I got other ways to get off, man,” said one, speaking on conditional release. “It’s just common sense. Those b!#%-breakers ain’t gonna get me for the difference,” explained another, who was unable to recall his name.

Late in the day, the street price hit rock bottom: two packs of gum and a Towers rookie card, before suddenly, someone bothered to read past the headline:

Twenty tonnes of hashish seized off the coast of Africa was destined for the Montreal market, police say.

Ah. But say, wasn’t the headline far more fun?

The Politics of Failure0

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.

Nothing to Add0

Posted by JJ in The Elephant, Golden Tacks, A House Divided (Sunday January 8, 2006 at 11:05 am)

This, sadly, is too long to be a daily feature.

Fortunately, it’s been published.

The Last Boy Scout0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, Trillium (Thursday January 5, 2006 at 6:20 pm)

Tough, sometimes, being Ontario. Perhaps no other province identifies itself as Canadian first and foremost, without requital. Fearful of a breakup of the country, strong talk about separatists always seems a prudent strategy to reassure Ontarians of one’s electoral credentials (that’s why those words are always delivered in English).

Which is the most interesting thing about the recent release of a new poll.

The poll shows the Tories ahead nationwide, but that may be nothing more than people roused from their Christmas stupor to pay attention to what was an excellent December campaign by the Conservatives and a lacklustre one by the Liberals. Now that the Liberals are putting out policy statements, they may well attract a few stragglers back into the fold.

The interesting thing isn’t the nationwide spread. It’s the movement apparent in the numbers in Quebec. There, the Conservatives have squeaked over 20%, apparently wholly at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois. The last time that happened, for perspective (even if Tory and Reform votes are combined), was in 1997, under the leadership of current Quebec Premier Jean Charest. For such a change to have taken place while the party is led by an Anglophone hailing from Toronto and Alberta is hard to understand.

If it’s not a terrible polling mistake, it points to a dramatic conclusion: that some soft-core Quebec nationalists see a viable political option in the federal Conservatives.

Remember, if you will, that the Bloc Quebecois emerged largely as a splinter group of Quebec conservatives, who had been successfully wooed by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. That some of their supporters might return to the fold at this point means a great deal for both Quebec and, perhaps more curiously, Ontario.

In Quebec, it raises the prospect of three-way races in which the Liberals will no longer stand as the natural alternative to the BQ. The Liberals will no longer be able to take their position in Quebec for granted, and must quickly refocus their campaign in that province if this poll represents a real trend.

But the effect on Ontario will be just as politically interesting. In a province where obstinate (and often heartless) attacks on sovereigntists prove the leader worthy of Canada, the emergence of legitimacy for a second party in that province could throw political choice into chaos. Ontarians fighting for their vision of Canada (as surely as they swarmed buses for Montreal in 1995) will suddenly be offered more than one way to fight.

Will they trust Conservatives to preserve national unity? Will they fear Conservatives’ policy of renegotiating relationships between the federal government and the provinces? If the former, it may support this poll’s movement towards the Liberals. If the latter, it may reverse the poll without the Liberals’ lifting a finger.

Hard to gauge. But the truth is, given that outcome, Harper, too, could stand to refocus his efforts in these two provinces. Because however they vote, Ontarians will be want to believe that they’re doing their duty to Crown and Country.

There Goes the Country0

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.

Tables Unturning0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday December 20, 2005 at 2:52 pm)

The weapons of the enemy are always a promising avenue of attack. Master them, and you’re on your way to mastering the enemy itself. It worked for the Romans and the English, but can it work for Canadian Conservative leader Steven Harper?

Long accustomed to enduring attacks painting him as a danger to Canada, Harper has spent the first few weeks of this campaign focussing on policy in a clear attempt to preemptively define himself.

Now, he’s gone on the attack with a strategy torn from the pages of his opponents (more on which later).

The Conservative leader has alleged that the federal Liberals’ poor performance in Quebec is just what Liberals want. Given that the Liberals are the only national party presenting a real challenge to the separatist Bloc Quebecois in that province, Canadians will naturally turn to the Liberals when national unity is threatened. Therefore, goes his thinking, by letting the BQ surge, the Liberals secure the support of fearful federalists across the country, boosting their performance elsewhere.

If true, Mr. Harper’s allegations merely brand the Liberal Party of Canada as the stupidest strategists in history — a questionable charge for a party which held power for three quarters of the last century, even given their recent weakness.

But let’s say, as we must to believe Mr. Harper’s claim, that the Liberals have the ability to win or lose something in the neighbourhood of twenty seats in Quebec — enough to make the difference between a Liberal and a separatist hold on that provinces 75 constituencies. How many seats would the threat of national disunity add, nationwide, to Liberal totals? Out West, probably none — concessions to Quebec aren’t as saleable as the Liberals might like. Out East, the Liberals have about as many seats as they’re likely to win. National unity wouldn’t likely pick up more than about 15 of the thirty seats they don’t already hold there (at a maximum).

By contrast, what would the situation be if they held the twenty seats in Quebec, rather than lying down? Twenty more seats in the House. In the last election, that would have brought them a majority. In this election, twenty seats could, once more, make that much of a difference. Unless the Liberals are able to gain twenty seats by stoking fears of separatism, it’s unlikely such a stratagem would be worth deploying — holding the seats is more worthwhile.

So even if it’s true that Liberals benefit from fears of separation, they probably benefit less from such fears than they would from a strong showing in Quebec. It’s highly unlikely, then, that the Liberals intentionally do badly in Quebec — it’s more worthwhile for them to do well there, as their historic performance in the province shows. Their present weakness is one of the major contributing factors in their inability to hold a majority.

And most Canadians probably have a certain understanding of this. The Liberals have had a powerbase in Quebec since the Conservatives fell apart there in the 1920s. That they would sacrifice that base in the face of weakness and uncertain performance elsewhere is too preposterous an idea to suggest. No one will believe it.

Full marks to Mr. Harper for trying to turn the tables on the Liberals; but he needs to try a claim that isn’t so transparently ridiculous. It lays his strategy bare, and bare strategies look ugly. He’s right to take the enemy’s weapons, but he needs to wield them with a bit more subtlety and skill.

The Vision Thing0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Monday December 5, 2005 at 9:02 am)

Another promise for the future:

A Sovereign Quebec — A Green Quebec

And the Liberal position:

A Sovereign Quebec — A Law is Broken

Two solitudes? Check and check.

Moi, j’oublie0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, A House Divided (Thursday December 1, 2005 at 9:11 am)

James Travers of the Toronto Star has a story to tell. There was a time, he says, when Quebec was a base for the federal Liberals — when they could count on the province for their seats; and represented the country there.

Ah, but that was before three problems, says he: a ‘perfect storm’ of politics. Chretien’s mistakes in dealing with soft sovereigntists, Gilles Duceppe’s resuscitation of the Bloc Quebecois, and the sponsorship scandal. Since then, the Liberals have had to fight; and Martin’s pleas for unity must reverse this trend.

All well and good, save two mistakes: the trend, until recently, was the other way around; and one election does not make a trend.

The Bloc Quebecois secured 54 seats in 1993, 44 in 1997, and 38 in 2000. Clearly, Chretien’s approach to soft sovereigntists was playing right into the BQ’s hands. Moreover, the last time the Liberal party held a majority of the seats in Quebec was 1980, under Pierre Trudeau. Indeed, that was some time off. Since then, they’ve been engaged in competitive battles, first with the Tories, then with the BQ.

Gilles Duceppe became leader of the BQ prior to the 1997 election, and was at the helm as they slipped from their position as official opposition in that election and saw their seat total eroded yet again in the next. Has he since mounted a more effective campaign? Certainly. But it’s hard to say whether the credit for that should go to him or to a combination of unpopular policies by provincial Liberals and ongoing changes in Quebec politics.

So the “trend” is that the BQ gained seats in the last election. I suppose it will be a trend if (more likely when, granted) they gain seats in this election. But the writer woefully misrepresents history and does his audience a serious misservice.

The truth is that Quebec has been a battleground for the Liberals for a quarter century now, and not a base of support. Whatever Chretien’s faults, it’s clear that the BQ lost seats during his tenure in office. Is Travers right about Gomery? Sure. Is one out of three good enough? Not really.

Are there any fact-checkers working over there at the Star?

Right-Wing Conspiracies0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Wednesday November 23, 2005 at 11:37 pm)

Keen followers of Canadian politics might recall Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s last interaction with a federal election. Days before the end of the 2004 campaign, Klein made passing reference to a proposal which “might violate” the terms of the Canada Health Act.

The Prime Minister seized the opportunity and suggested that Klein’s forthcoming reform proposal was part of a secret arrangment with Conservative Leader Steven Harper to ruin the Canadian health care system.

Whether the shift in polls to the Liberals in the days leading up to the election was a result of this event or a longer series of attacks on the Conservatives is uncertain. But Tory supporters weren’t pleased by the possibility that the most senior active Conservative politician in Canada may have torpedoed the party’s chance at federal power.

Is he at it again? In a recent interview, he suggested that the Liberals will return with another minority government, largely due to an expected failure on the part of the Conservatives to make further inroads in Ontario.

Once again, Conservatives are less than pleased. Deputy Leader Peter McKay has recommended “duct tape” to deal with the party’s difficulties, adding that the Premier’s comments were “not helpful.” What is he thinking?

Premier Klein is no fool. He’s campaigned effectively and powerfully long enough to know the effects of his own statements; and he’s not been blinded to the need for careful campaigning by the apparent strength of his own support base.

Prime Minister Martin can’t possibly have a monopoly on conspiracy theories. Let me offer a few of them up.

First, take a look at the broader context of Klein’s comments in 2004. A major part of his government’s appeal has been the contrast of his policies with those of the federal government. Since the National Energy Program, Ottawa-bashing has been a major component of Albertan identity; and the Premier’s ability to portray himself as a fighter against the status quo of government has been a consistent part of his campaigns.

Would Klein’s government be as necessary or urgent if a Conservative government were in power in Ottawa? Especially considering that the government in question would be based principally in Western Canada, and built on the movement launched by Albertan Preston Manning?

Now consider the fact that Premier Klein was about to enter his own election campaign. If the Tories had won, he would have been campaigning during their honeymoon period, while hope still ran high. Under those circumstances, Klein’s supporters would likely have been harder to rally; and his purpose would have been diminished.

Now there’s a conspiracy theory for you.

But if you think Klein doesn’t want the Conservatives in federal office, consider the following theory.

Last federal election, the Conservatives started strongly, and by mid-campaign, were neck-and-neck in the polls with the Liberals. Talk was already beginning of a Conservative government. Forced on the defensive, the Liberals at last resorted to the tactics of past campaigns, alleging that the Tories would attack health care and rights. The Conservatives, forced into one of the more common no-win scenarios of what now passes for debate, were forced to disprove a thing of which there was no evidence to begin with. An assertion is easy to make and hard to disprove. The result was clear as it had been before. Conservative support was eroded or Liberal supporters rushed back to save themselves — either way, the Liberals won.

But the Conservatives have learned their lesson. Don’t look strong. It’s not just advice to keep your own campaign focused. Canadians don’t like strong figures, they like to tear them down (that’s a whole theory on it’s own, but forgive me, I’ll get to it eventually). Most importantly, your opponents ease off when you already look threatened, and your supporters aren’t likely to see the same urgency in supporting a position they believe will win.

Does that sound familiar? It should. It’s the same reason why Klein wouldn’t want a federal government based in Alberta while running his own campaign. It’s not a new idea, just ask Sun Tzu (verse 20), but it’s still a good one. Looking weak might be an excellent tactic at this point.

Ralph Klein is no fool.

Heart and Detail: Politics and Law0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, A House Divided (Tuesday November 22, 2005 at 1:20 pm)

With a new leader heading up the Parti Quebecois, it’s time to return, once again, to Canadians’ favorite activity: self-destruction.

With a strong mandate behind him, PQ Leader Andre Boisclair has declared his objective: to hold a referendum after the next PQ election victory.

Faced with the prospect of a third referendum, Prime Minister Martin has rolled out the federal weapon prepared after the last referendum: the Clarity Act. Boisclair’s denial of the applicability of the Act to a future referendum brought the following comments from Martin:

Specifically, Mr. Boisclair has indicated he would not be bound by the provisions of the Clarity Act which were recognized in a Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Mr. Boisclair’s declaration amounts to a rejection of the rule of law in favour of political expediency,

The problems with that line of reasoning are legion, but can be summed up fairly simply. Quebec passed a law within days of the Clarity Act, denying its validity. Though it was not passed unanimously, a motion denouncing it was proposed by the Quebec Liberals, introduced by Jean Charest, and passed unanimously by the Quebec Legislative Assembly that same year.

So what’s all the ruckus about?

The Clarity Act does three things. First, it sets out terms to describe what kinds of questions on a referendum will or will not be considered to result in an expression of the “will” of the people of a province and allows the House of Commons to debate the question. Second, it bars the federal government from negotiating with the government of a province for that province’s ceasing to be part of Canada. Third, it spends a lot of time on political grandstanding.

Grandstanding aside, there are serious problems with the Act. A bar on the federal government’s negotiating will only last until the federal government passes a bill allowing them to negotiate — an easy thing for a majority or a minority with the likely support of the Bloc Quebecois. Moreover, this bar depends on the definition of “ceasing to be part of Canada.” While the House of Commons can likely bind the government on this point over whether the referendum question relates to ceasing to be part of Canada, it doesn’t have the same authority to determine whether that is the purpose of negotiations, and the prohibition refers only to that point. The decision to negotiate, therefore, is largely a political one, based on the parties’ ability to spin their objectives.

So much for clarity.

As to the determination of whether the question is clear or not, the terms of the Act are clear enough. But there is no reason to believe that such terms would be binding on Quebecers, nor that the presence of such a law would be determinative of their will. In the case of a referendum, the courts could be used to resolve the question of whether the referendum question was clear; but the arguments will be political and fact-based, rather than objective.

True, the Supreme Court of Canada did recognize the principles in the Clarity Act, but that isn’t to say that the Supreme Court decided the Act was binding on Quebec, merely that it stated the principles which would apply to the interpretation of a referendum question.

Moreover, the Court’s decision pointed out that no legal finding would bar Quebec from unilaterally declaring and achieving de facto independence. The effectiveness of such a move, they pointed out, would be determined by the behaviour of the parties as understood by the international community.

Which could offer one explanation as to why the Prime Minister is trying to paint the PQ as lawbreakers. Presumably, this portrayal might influence the international community. But if that’s the resaon, doesn’t it amount to an admission that de facto secession will go ahead? Obviously, that’s not the point.

What is, then? Surely the Prime Minister doesn’t think that a law denounced by his federalist allies in Quebec will sway supporters of sovereignty. Will it sway federalists in Quebec? Will it push them to his side? Surely they are already supporting the federal Liberals as against the Bloc Quebecois; and in a referendum, they don’t need anything to sway federalists.

Are so-called “soft” sovereigntists going to be swayed by the weak claim that they risk breaking the law?

Consider the sovereigntist position. A separate Quebec is not a legal matter for Quebecois, it is a dream with calls to freedom, history, spilled blood, and religion.

Do we really believe that we can offer an alternative in threats of legal niceties and semantic analysis?

Are English Canadians glad to see the Prime Minister attack the PQ and its new leader? Certainly. Perhaps that’s the hope: that Ontarians and Westerners will rally behind the Prime Minister’s attack and rush to support him in the next election. Sadly, encouraging him in this won’t help.

We need to appeal to hearts, not pedants; people, not the law. That’s where the appeal of the PQ lies, and it can’t be easily avoided. That’s a political contest — a battle for the imagination, dreams, and the future. We need to understand the difference between a political battle and a legal one. If all we can produce to counter separatism is the threat of legal action, then Canada truly has nothing to offer; and the battle for its heart is already lost.