Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s decision to play the Quebec card has left Liberal strategists wondering what the Tories’ game is on that one. While they recognize Harper has always talked about more power for the provinces at Ottawa’s expense, the Liberals aren’t sure what tactical advantage the Conservative leader stands to gain by coming out in favour of more autonomy for Quebec in the election campaign.
The idea of sending more federal cash to Quebec and allowing the province more say alongside Canada’s diplomats at international conferences will appeal to some federalist Quebecers-premier Jean Charest among them, as he said on Monday-but will it translate into seats for the Tories in Quebec? The Liberals think that the Tories aspirations of winning even a few of the province’s 75 seats are far-fetched. While Quebecers might like Harper’s pro-provincial rights stance, his right-of-centre economic, social and environmental policies are non-starters in that province.
More likely, according to the Liberals, Harper is trying to steal away a few percentage points of the federalist vote to help the Bloc Quebecois improve on the 54 seats they won in the last election and crush the Liberals, who managed only 21 seats last time and hurting badly in Quebec from the sponsorship scandal.
But at what price nationally? By welcoming more autonomy for Quebec-and even raising the possibility of another round of potentially disastrous constitutional negotiations-Harper has given Martin a great deal of running room on the national unity issue in the rest of the country, particularly in Ontario. It provides Martin with the opportunity to stress the importance of a strong central government that can speak with one voice abroad and harness the country’s energies to tackle national problems. And implicit in the Liberal message will be Pierre Trudeau’s damning depiction of short-lived Tory prime minister Joe Clark at “head waiter to the provinces.”
Tomorrow, Martin will speak in Quebec City and you can expect him to strike a sharp contrast with Harper’s Quebec gambit.