Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Liberal leadership and Quebec

Chantal Hebert’s column today raises an issue of fundamental significance. It starts as a discussion of the Liberal leadership race, and the impact of the withdrawal of Frank McKenna. (I happen to think that McKenna would have been a disastrous choice but that is now moot.) But it moves on to broader issues.

The key point in her column is this one:

If the Liberals are to quickly grow out of opposition, they too will have to avoid sticking their heads in the sand of wishful thinking. They will, for instance, have to ask themselves whether they can continue to promote a vision of Canada that has no traction in francophone Quebec and in the West and is losing ground even in their Ontario heartland.

Trudeau gave the party, among other things, a commitment to the idea of strong central government and this, along with his constitutional deal in 1981, has arguably cost the Liberals the support of francophone Quebec. The Liberals dominated Quebec from 1917 to 1984, with the single exception of 1958, but have performed poorly there ever since (in 2000 the party won a plurality of the Quebec popular vote but finished second by a substantial margin among francophones). Liberals have not yet squarely faced this fact. Now that they have a federalist opponent that has achieved a taste of success on the ground in Quebec, they continue to ignore the problem at their peril.

Even if, as I suspect, many Liberals do not wish to question their devotion to a strong central government, present circumstances suggest that they can no longer ignore the issue. It ought to be a central feature of the party’s debate in the coming year.

The issue deserves to be debated and thought through as well by the NDP, which has traditionally supported, with some exceptions, a strong central government. (Some western party members have been more sympathetic to a provincial autonomist perspective.) This would be a good year for the party to debate these issues, given that its annual meeting will be held in Quebec City in September.

The Liberal Party made the idea of bilingualism a core Canadian political value. The Conservatives, after resisting bilingualism for years (indeed the Conservative Scott Reid was reprimanded during the 2004 election on the issue), have now accepted it and integrated it into their world view. However, Quebec since the 1950’s has aspired to greater provincial autonomy. The Conservatives are now gaining ground in Quebec by promoting a devolutionist view of the federation. The Liberals under Pearson accepted in part Quebec’s aspirations for greater autonomy. (The deal that led to the creation of the Canada Pension Plan is an example of this.) But they strongly reversed themselves under Trudeau. If Harper can be successful in Quebec, and in particular, if he can reduce support for Quebec independence with his agenda, the Liberal Party may have to take a hard look at one of its articles of faith.

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