Here’s a crazy thought, Chantal

by Paul Wells

No political commentator working in Canada today is read with as much anticipation as Chantal Hébert. She’s obviously the class of the field, and I’m belabouring the point only because her column today is rather spectacularly beneath her usual standards.

In early 2009 I spoke to a pretty conservative audience in Toronto. (OK, it was a Fraser Institute event, an error of youth I won’t repeat.) I was in a fair snit about the Harper government at that time, and I uncorked a long list of critiques of the way the prime minister was going about his business: arbitrary, contradictory, yadda yadda. Frosty applause when I finally stopped. The question-and-answer period began, and a dotty matron dressed, approximately, like Milburn Drysdale drew herself up to her full height and said, as one might to an idiot: “Yes, well, that’s all very good, but what would you prefer? Would you prefer that… that… Michael Ignatieff and his gang govern the country?” She awaited my response with the grand satisfaction of somebody who had shut a troublemaker up but good.

Well, no, I replied, or at least not necessarily. There is another option: the government we already have could govern better.

I have no idea whether this response satisfied my silly interrogator, but I’m stuck believing it was the right answer anyway. I think it’s fair of citizens to demand that public figures live up to certain standards without regard to their party stripe. I don’t even think that’s a hard question. So I was really surprised to see Chantal arguing, in effect, that Quebecers should put up with an awful government because at least it’s a federalist one.

Indeed, long before Maclean’s invested itself with the ultimately failed journalistic mission of outing Quebec as the most corrupt province in Canada, Jean Charest’s Liberal regime had become a long shot for re-election.

But in a spirit of consistency, will Maclean’s also encourage Quebecers to turn to the Parti Québécois in the next provincial election?

If that were the case, the editors of the magazine would be demonstrating an uncommon amount of abnegation on behalf of their readers for precious few Canadians crave for a return to the unity wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Here, Chantal is echoing the many, many commenters under our blogs — always an uninspiring precedent — who pointed out that the reformers in Quebec were sovereignists and the business-as-usual crowd were federalists. This is absolutely true. It’s a really big problem for federalism. But it doesn’t actually get federalists off the hook. “Well, we can run a pig sty here, because look who’ll get the job if we don’t!”

Chantal ends her column by asking how Andrew Coyne would vote in the next Quebec election. I have tried hard to confect an interest in that hypothetical, but it’s just not happening. (I look forward to her next column, in which I presume she’ll wonder whether André Pratte is getting ready to vote PQ.) Citizens’ engagement does not end with their vote. It also includes, or should, a daily and indeed automatic expectation that the winners of the last vote live up to certain standards until the next. I’m so used to seeing Chantal Hébert maintain that kind of expectation that I’m surprised to see her take a break from that standard.




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