Majority rules: Back to work

A Harper majority will face tough challenges, and Quebec will still be front and centre

by Paul Wells

Back to work

Ian Jackson/CP

There’s nothing like a short attention span to make everything feel brand new. For a month, the people who buzz in Ottawa have been abuzz with speculation about what a Harper majority government will be like. But this is hardly alien territory. Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, albeit in shakier circumstances, since 2006. He’s becoming a known quantity. And majority governments are hardly unheard of in Canada. We had them, most recently, for nearly a quarter-century without interruption from 1980 to 2004, from Trudeau to Mulroney to Chrétien.

Now the 41st Parliament is convening in Ottawa to elect a Speaker on June 2, hear a Throne Speech on June 3 and watch Finance Minister Jim Flaherty deliver his seventh budget speech on June 6. The best bet is that Flaherty’s budget will be like the one he tried to introduce in March, before the Harper government was defeated. The likelihood is that a majority government now will work the way majority governments usually do. And the odds are that Harper-with-a-majority will be a lot like Harper-without-a-majority.

The next few weeks will have a phony-war feel to them. Real changes and big fights will wait for the autumn. For now there will be recycling, with hints of bigger fights ahead.

Harper made it clear during the campaign that he would re-introduce his March budget with few modifications if re-elected. Partly that’s because the government needs a budget to operate. It’s also partly because the Prime Minister wants to demonstrate the futility of the opposition parties’ move to defeat his government, so soon after this budget’s first appearance in March.

It’s already clear Harper will look for other ways to rub his victory in a little. When he shuffled his cabinet he kept ministers whose budget allocations (Tony Clement) or memo-writing style (Bev Oda) had bought his last government months of controversy. He appointed three failed Conservative candidates to the Senate. He permitted the quiet return of a staffer, Kasra Nejatian, who seemed to have resigned in disgrace in March after mistakenly faxing details of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s fundraising activity to an NDP MP.

Harper’s political opponents, especially the Liberals, sought to frame the recent election as a referendum on the way Harper governs. Harper won big. He reads the result as an endorsement of all he has done until now. He will govern himself, and Canada, accordingly.

Unfettered by any real opposition? Free at last to implement his secret agenda? Not at all. This is where students of Canadian history would do well to read some, or simply to recall what life was like for Mulroney and Chrétien. Both men enjoyed parliamentary majorities, so both could win every vote that came their way in the Commons. But a majority government isn’t a four-year vacation from politics. A government needs to get re-elected. It must keep an eye on public opinion. Crafty opposition parties have a shot, every day, at influencing the public.

This is where Jack Layton and his rookie MPs come in. The NDP leader is a skilled parliamentary performer. He knows how to talk in sound bites. His ability to spot an issue that will catch on, even among voters who didn’t think they liked the NDP, has often been underestimated.

Layton has already come up with an attention-getting gimmick for the return of Parliament: he is forbidding his MPs from heckling their colleagues during question period. We’ll see how long the New Democrats can keep that resolution. But while it lasts, that much respectful silence will be noticed. It will help put the NDP on the good side of an electorate that came to view the bickering of the Harper minority years with disgust.

Every once in a while, however, the 103 NDP MPs will have to say something. A theme is already emerging in the public remarks of Layton and his colleagues. Not the only theme, just the dominant one. That theme is Quebec.

This is no surprise. Fifty-nine of Layton’s MPs, 57 per cent of his caucus, come from Quebec. But the province is hardly a captive market for the NDP. A gust—the collapse of the Bloc Québécois—blew the NDP to dominance in Quebec, and a new breeze could blow it right back out. Quebec voters awoke after the election to discover they were represented, in a few high-profile cases, by political rookies who lived outside their ridings and knew little about local issues.

So Layton and his new parliamentary House leader, the mercurial Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair, must keep proving to Quebecers that electing all those New Democrats wasn’t a beer-goggle mistake that must be undone at the first opportunity. Not surprisingly, they have already put Quebec concerns at the centre of the NDP policy agenda.

The two national party leaders’ springtime disaster-zone tour schedule gives a hint about where each party’s political centre of gravity lies. Harper visited the site of wildfires in Slave Lake, Alta., and the Manitoba flood zone. Layton saw the Manitoba floods in the last days of the election campaign, but he has not been to Slave Lake. Instead, on May 30 he pulled on hip waders and visited St. Paul de l’Ile aux Noix, Que., to complain that Harper hasn’t done enough for flood victims there.

Layton has also signalled he will demand that Quebec get more seats in a reallocated House of Commons than its population share would warrant. He continues to suck and blow on whether he supports the Clarity Act, which would have Parliament judge the clarity of a future Quebec referendum question, and then again on the clarity of the result. He will call on the Harper government to apply “key principles” of Bill 101, the Quebec French language law, to federally regulated workplaces in Quebec. Unsurprisingly, this has Quebec anglophones worried.

This will go on and on. Remember Régis Labeaume, the little mayor who wants the rest of Canada to bankroll a hockey arena in Quebec City? Harper rejected the idea after flirting with it for a long time. Layton still thinks Labeaume’s wishes should be Ottawa’s command. The NDP’s pacifism will align with Quebec elites’ pacifism when it comes to extending Canada’s participation in the stalled air campaign against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In short, there will often be days when the new NDP will be hard to distinguish from the old Bloc Québécois. That’s reasonable. The good people of Quebec deserve vigorous advocates in Canada’s Parliament as much as anyone else does. But it will pose headaches, not only for Layton but for Harper.

Ninety-seven per cent of Harper’s MPs were elected outside Quebec. He would have a majority even if his five Quebec survivors had lost with the rest. His political interest, as currently constituted, lies outside Quebec, and to the extent a given issue can be framed as a confrontation between Quebec and the rest of Canada, Harper’s caucus and his voter base will not have a lot of natural sympathy for the Quebec point of view.

But that’s now. Harper wins because, like Layton, he has been better than Liberals at planning and preparing for future elections. The NDP put those dozens of Quebec seats into play but it may not own them forever. Harper will be disinclined to preside over a government that simply rejects Quebec or works around it. That was the message he sent by naming four of his five Quebec MPs to his cabinet. It’s the message he sends by his silence as Layton struggles with questions about the Clarity Act. As a former Reform party national unity critic, Harper used to claim paternity over the Clarity Act. He hasn’t been doing that lately. Hasn’t been saying much of anything, really, on the issues Layton has identified as the NDP’s Quebec issues.

It has never been obvious how a conservative party with much of its base in Western Canada should respond to Quebec. In 1995 Tom Flanagan, working in close co-operation with Harper, wrote a book called Waiting for the Wave, ostensibly about Preston Manning’s leadership of the Reform party. Flanagan noted that Manning “has used a portfolio of positioning strategies” to keep Reform relevant. Sometimes it posed as “the party of the right,” a traditional conservative movement; sometimes as “the party of the West,” supporting regional demands whether they were strictly conservative ideals or not; sometimes as “the party of the hinterland” against the urban elites—and sometimes as “the party of English Canada.”

That last bit is obvious enough. Reform had no Quebec MPs. It opposed the Meech and Charlottetown accords, although Harper and Flanagan had to talk Manning into the latter position. In the last days of the 1997 election, Manning ran as a blocker against other parties with their “leaders from Quebec.” But even in the ’90s, Flanagan wrote, Manning saw himself “as ultimately becoming the leader of a pan-Canadian Reform party including a strong contingent of francophones from Quebec.”

Harper cherishes that goal even more strongly than Manning did because he has come so much closer to attaining it. He will resist the urge to lead a “party of English Canada.” But it will be in Layton’s interest to push him into making that choice, again and again. The return of majority governments is not the only blast from the past for today’s Ottawa. We can also look forward to the return of Quebec to the centre of many of our national debates.




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Majority rules: Back to work

  1. If Jack really doesn’t want heckling, and the People’s Democratic Canadian Government of Harper doesn’t really want heckling, the introduction of the talking-stick will fix it once and for all.

    Objections to a talking-stick:

    Too time-consuming. Answer: the time for attendants to transfer the talking-stick will give time for the addressee to formulate a thoughtful and cogent response. The loss of talking-time in the transfer will more than be compensated by a great increase in Signal/Noise ratio, which is exactly what is called for, especially during QP.

    It’s not traditional. Fine, badgering, heckling, interrupting is traditional. Live with it, but don’t tell us you genuinely want to be ‘civil’.

    Unspoken objections:

    We’re all for multiculturalism, aboriginal rights, blah blah, but we really don’t want any primitive ooga-booga nonsense in our esteemed outpost of the Blitish Empah.

    Answer: the talking stick is a recognition that people are actually naturally rather uncivilized, and traditional cultures wisely realize the imposition of civility in a physical object. People see the talking stick in another’s hand, and they know to be silent.

    The idea comes from an obscure blog comment in MacLeans. OK, fine. Come up with a plan. How ’bout, ‘rudest person of the day buys everyone doughnuts and coffee. But you know it will fail.

    I now relinquish the talking-stick to the next commenter.

    • People should not require a stick to be civil. People should be civil regardless of whether they are passing around a stick or any other tool.

  2. If there is anything that should happen, the people of Canada as a whole should finally be granted a reprieve from the endless obsession with Quebec.   I’m sure Harper will try to grow his base in Quebec, but at the same time, he should not show the same preoccupation with Quebec-Canada relations that has become an obsession with previous governments.

    • that’s the least of what needs to happen.  ideally, Harper would call quebec’s bluff and dare them to separate.  more realistically, they need to make any equalization payments contingents on Quebec raising their tuition fees, the removal of subsidized daycare, and the development of Quebec’s natural resources.

      right now Quebec maintains fiscally suicidal policies because it is propped by the RoC.  they need to suffer the consequences of their policies.

      • I know you don’t understand Canada, but you should realise that a stunt like that would send the Conservatives back to the wilderness for two decades.

        • Back to the wilderness in Quebec, I suppose.  But outside of Quebec?  Why?

          • Two reasons:
            1. Because the sovereignist movement is not nearly as dead as some not-so-clued-in anglo reporters seem to want to believe it is.  An ultimatim like that would revitalize it in no time.
            2. Most Canadians are progressive, and many progressives look at Quebec’s social programs as a model for the rest of Canada to one-day adopt, not as something to be scrapped. A strike against Quebec social programs is a strike against the social safety net in general.

          • Most Canadians are progressive, and many progressives look at Quebec’s
            social programs as a model for the rest of Canada to one-day adopt, not
            as something to be scrapped.

            Now there’s a laugh.  If that were true, the Conservatives would not have won 50% of the vote outside Quebec.  If that were true, the rest of the country would already have Quebec’s social programs.  What a laugh.

          • True. the rest of the world is not realizing that these programs are unaffordable.

  3. “Harper won big. He reads the result as an endorsement of all he has done until now. He will govern himself, and Canada, accordingly.”

    i.e. with a hyper-partisan approach that fails to distinguish between party and government roles, and porkbarrels at least as zealously as any party in recent history.

    Plus ça change…

    • And Harper doesn’t care about that 60/40 split Layton, Rae, and their party pundits are always talking about. Except for a caucus revolt which is impossible, Harper will govern as if  he won 90%, so it’s the not so friendly dictatorship for four years. Can anyone imagine him going so far right that his caucus would actually be upset? Nope.

      • ???

  4. Paul,

    If memory serves, less than 24 hours after winning his majority, Harper mentioned that future health care policy should include letting provinces experiment with private delivery of care, which last I checked is only really popular in two provinces (and yes, one of them starts with “Q”).

    Isn’t this a sign Harper will address Quebec by finding issues where he can side with the Quebecers against their newly-minted NDP MPs, and drive those sources des dissension at every opportunity he can find?

    • They said the same thing in code during the campaign (‘alternate delivery mechanisms’).

    • Quebec wants more power. Harper wants to give the provinces more power.

      I predict that Quebec will learn to like the CPC.

  5. “In short, there will often be days when the new NDP will be hard to distinguish from the old Bloc Québécois. That’s reasonable. The good people of Quebec deserve vigorous advocates in Canada’s Parliament as much as anyone else does. But it will pose headaches, not only for Layton but for Harper.”

    It will pose headaches for the people of Canada, never mind for Harper and Layton.

    Who speaks for Canada ?

    Surely not Layton now that he has revealed himself and his party as Quebec separatists.

    Surely not Harper, who has almost no seats in Quebec and very little credibility there.

    And when Charest is booted next year and the separatists are back in power in Quebec, who will argue the federalist case ?

  6. “Manning saw himself “as ultimately becoming the leader of a pan-Canadian Reform party including a strong contingent of francophones from Quebec.”   Harper cherishes that goal even more strongly than Manning did because he has come so much closer to attaining it. He will resist the urge to lead a “party of English Canada.”

    Wells – Is this your opinion or do you know this? Not challenging you, just curious because it explains a lot to me if true, that Harper has been governing with Quebec in mind. I have been astonished by how Harper is governing – not that I expected proper conservative legislation but Harper has been way more Statist than I expected. 

    Read Plamondon’s Blue Thunder last year and it reminded me how dire Cons have done in Quebec over the past hundred years. Harper has chosen about as a quixotic goal a Con PM can choose. 

    Harper should not “resist the urge to lead a “party of English Canada” because that is only way Con party will bring new people within tent. Governing like Liberals, when Libs just had their lunch eaten by the socialists in Quebec, does not make all that much sense to me.

    • I think Wells is right, but not in the way you may think.

      I think Harper wants to lead a pan-Canadian reform party, not by becoming more statist himself (perhaps only in the short term), but by slowly and incrementally changing Quebec to become less statist (ie bring Quebecers closer to him, not bring himself closer to Quebecers).

      As DJ Mcquire indicates, one way to start the process is to introduce more private delivery into health care (or at least give the provinces the freedom to do so themselves), because surprisingly, this is one area where Quebecers are more in favour (and therefore less statist) than the rest of Canada.

      • Yes, it’s interesting why that would be so.  I suppose one explanation is the fact that Quebecers often don’t share the same outlook as the ROC and are more inclined to a “European” outlook, including with respect to political and policy models.  And in Europe, they don’t have the same neurosis that a lot of left-leaning Canadians do about private delivery of services within an overall public/universal model.

      • Do you have any more examples? 

        I am having hard time envisioning Cons building majority government through Quebec without alienating a lot of their supporters in other provs. 

        Cons should stay well away from Quebec. When you are in hole, stop digging. 

        People are also attracted to sincerity and conviction. If Mike Harris can get Ontario to vote for some red meat conservatism, maybe Harper get some Que to vote Con with Reform style policies?

        • Yes, that’s more or less what I’m saying, Harper will try to move Quebecers towards reform style policies.  One of these policies is more private health care delivery.

          No, I don’t have other examples.  

          It’s doable, but it takes a long time.  But really, the Cons current base in Quebec around Quebec city is quite conservative in mindset I think. 

        • This election was the first in a very long time where Quebec voted policy not nationalism. Once the choice is not nationalist or federalist, then the choices become left/middle/right as in the rest of the country. The Conservatives have a place in that mix. On policy grounds, not nationalism.

          If Layton insists on bringing it back to that, attempting to be more Bloc than the Bloc, they are the ones who can lose badly. Interestingly, there is an opportunity for the Liberals to become the English Canada opposition party while Layton potentially alienates the left leaning non quebecers by making Quebec central to his opposition strategy. I’m not certain that he can represent both.

      • Exactly, although I prefer to see it as Quebec realizing that Harper is the best fit for them. I don’t think they have to change much.

  7. “So Layton and his new parliamentary House leader, the mercurial Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair, must keep proving to Quebecers that electing all those New Democrats wasn’t a beer-goggle mistake that must be undone at the first opportunity.”

    All I know about Quebec politics is what MacPherson and Hebert write about but I think NDP should be good fit in Quebec. Soft separatists don’t actually want to separate, they want to use threat to extort more money from Rest of Canada. Soft separatists and NDP both think taking money from many, to give to a few chosen interest groups, is good policy so they should be comfortable with one another.

    I have long wondered why Quebecers were not voting for NDP more. NDP and Quebec seem like perfect fit to me if Quebecers can put aside Fed/Sep debate for a moment. Libs seem to be favoured for protecting ‘Canada’ but NDP better fit for economic and social policies. 

  8. “Act. As a former Reform party national unity critic, Harper used to claim paternity over the Clarity Act”

    Interesting how you worded that. I read somwhere[ long long ago] that Dion/Chretien rejected the more incendiary aspects of Harper’s plan..indeed i think the words incitement to violence may have been used.

    Dion seems to be making a bit of a name for himself lately. Rex mentioned him favourably in his spot on diatribe against Layton on the National recently[ don't always agree with Rex...but when he's on, he's on]
    Dion had a good line, that went something like: Layton thinks that 50+ 1 may meet the SC’s requirement for a clear majority. If that’s the case, it doesn’t leave much room for an unclear majority. Smart guy Dion; pity he was such a crappy retail politician.
    If it is true that Harper is going to distance himself from the clarity act, doesn’t this leave a little wiggle room for the libs to roar back[ ok maybe limp back] as the party of national unity and the true defenders of federalists within Quebec? They have to start somewhere. I wonder what Rae’s standing is with Quebecers – i’ve never read anything about him, either yea or nay.

  9. “Unfettered by any real opposition? Free at last to implement his secret agenda? Not at all. This is where students of Canadian history would do well to read some, or simply to recall what life was like for Mulroney and Chrétien. Both men enjoyed parliamentary majorities, so both could win every vote that came their way in the Commons. But a majority government isn’t a four-year vacation from politics. A government needs to get re-elected. It must keep an eye on public opinion. Crafty opposition parties have a shot, every day, at influencing the public.”

    Exactly, Paul.  This paragraph should be required reading for those Liberal and Dipper partisans (and their more histrionic shills in the media like Marci MacDonald) who are constantly insisting that given a majority, Harper will have all abortion clinics bulldozed and institute mandatory school prayer, etc.

  10. Layton “knows how to talk in sound bites …”

    How about “don’t rub me up the wrong way” when asked to comment on Toronto massage parlours? 

  11. It has to be Quebec’s turn to sit a the back of the bus.  If not, the frustration that brought the Reform Party will return.  Only this time, it will be much more aggressive than 20 years ago.

  12. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Harper held the majority of the seats he now has, and took a few more from Quebec next time around? What would that say?

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