Perhaps the oddest aspect of the evolution of federal political scene since 1990—that watershed year in Canadian politics—is the way the Bloc Québécois settled in for the long haul.
When the Bloc first emerged out of the wreckage of the Meech Lake Accord, Lucien Bouchard’s parliamentary insurgency was looked upon as a dark cloud blowing through, not a permanent feature of the partisan landscape.
But they just wouldn’t go away. So we’ve grown used to seeing Gilles Duceppe, so much less ominous a presence than the glowering Bouchard, in leaders’ debates during elections, going about his business in the House the rest of the time.
And for the federalist parties, working with Bloc MPs, especially on committees, has long since become a routine matter, even if the notion of cooperating in any way with those who want to break up the country might still shock many Canadians.
In his first minority government, for instance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper relied on Bloc votes to pass two budgets and his landmark softwood lumber deal. These were not trifling events: the Conservative minority’s survival depended on those separatist MPs voting with the government side.
This week, however, the Tories are betting their future on being able to stir up residual public feeling that the Bloc should be dreaded, loathed, and isolated. The Conservatives left no doubt today that they see one major vulnerability in the coalition of Liberals and New Democrats that proposes to replace them: its unsightly reliance on Bloc votes in the House.
There are signs the Liberals and NDP underestimated the potential potency of the argument that the Bloc should not be allowed anywhere near the levers of power. Some Liberals, though not all, stood to applaud Duceppe in the House when he got up to ask his first question on Monday. Bad move: no separatist should win an ovation from the federalists elected to sit in that chamber, no matter what.
Later, just before the coalition leaders staged the signing ceremony for their deal in Parliament’s historic Railway Committee Room, I asked a Liberal MP if having Duceppe in the picture didn’t ruin this elaborate photo-op. She didn’t seem to grasp what I was driving at. Around the Hill, after all, Duceppe is just part of the furniture.
But not in the rest of the country. Harper shrewdly fastened on that image—Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton sitting with Duceppe as if he were their equal—as the picture he needed to drive home. (Typically of Harper lately, he went too far, claiming falsely that there was no Canadian flag behind the trioka for the public sealing of the coalition deal.)
It was remarkable today how much all other elements of the parliamentary clash had faded to the background for the Tories. Hammering the putative coalition for relying on the Bloc took primacy over any other argument for letting Harper retain power.
But Harper has a problem in sustaining this line. Back on Sept. 9, 2004, he signed a letter to then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, along with Duceppe and Layton, telling her they had all been “in close consultation.” Their letter asked Clarkson not to let Paul Martin, who led the minority Liberal government at the time, dissolve parliament and force an election. She should first, Harper, Layton and Duceppe together advised, consult them and consider “all your options.”
It was a clear reference to the possibility of a coalition involving the Bloc. But any inconvenient parallel between that moment and the present situation is vehemently denied by the Conservatives. Asked about the 2004 situation, along with the various times the Tories have relied on Bloc votes in the House on an ad hoc basis, Industry Minister Tony Clement had this to say outside the Commons this afternoon:
“In 2004, first of all, you had a federal election result where the governing party, the Liberal party went from a majority to a minority. On certain tactical issues, of course the opposition parties do have regard to one another’s position…
“[But] at no time has Prime Minister Harper ever suggested, ever in his political life, that in order to form a Government of Canada, we should have the Bloc Québécois holding the keys to the entry hall to the House of Commons. At no time has he suggested that. I think that’s wrong for Canada. It’s wrong for the future of our democracy and I think Pierre Trudeau and Sir Wilfrid Laurier are spinning in their graves right now.”
Other Tories were also liberally invoking Laurier and Trudeau, and even Jean Chretien. Just when you thought you’d heard everything.
There are various ways this extraordinary situation might play out over the next few days. Harper might well succeed in getting Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean to grant a request to prorogue Parliament, likely until his government is prepared to table a budget on Jan. 27. That would at least allow him the chance to be defeated on a coherent economic plan, and not the thin, partisan gruel of last week’s economic update. Or perhaps she will turn him down and his minority will fall next week.
Whatever happens, what began as a fight over economic policy and House tactics has turned, like so many past federal battles, into a war of words over national unity. The Bloc is cast again, at least in Conservative rhetoric, as something like the menace it appeared to be back in Bouchard’s day. To think it had come so be viewed as nearly ordinary.