In his latest column for the Ottawa Citizen, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley writes about how Stephen Harper still struggles with Quebec issues. Brian uses two recent decisions that show that Harper is "still feeling his way, pulled in different directions by powerful forces." For example, in the naval shipbuilding contract, the Conservatives spared no effort to come up with a process that would be fair and transparent, awarding the contracts on merit and not political criteria. However, in the proposed expansion of the House of Commons, Crowley points out that Harper succumbed to Quebec pressure. Instead of adding 30 new seats to the Commons between British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario as promised, the number of seats is to be reduced and Quebec is to be granted additional seats too. Crowley concludes, "There are lots of political issues where Harper can give ground to Quebec because there's no fundamental principle at stake. But where the fairness and integrity of our institutions is concerned, there should be no room for horse  trading." Full column is copied below.

Since the release of the Brian's column, it was mentioned in Chris Selley's Full Pundit feature in the National Post's Full Comment section on October 24th. In his Full Pundit feature, he quotes Brian's column twice! Click here for full article.

Even with majority, Quebec  a key challenge for Harper

By Brian Lee Crowley, The Ottawa Citizen, October 22, 2011

In Stephen Harper's long and painful education in the arcane art of managing political power, few things are proving so difficult for him to master as the thorny problem of Quebec. Two recent decisions show that he is still feeling his way, pulled in different directions by powerful forces. Yet finding his bearings and managing his relationship with Quebec successfully will be one of the tests that will determine if he becomes a great prime minister or merely a competent one.

There is not much political precedent to guide Mr Harper. The number of prime ministers who managed to achieve parliamentary majorities with only token representation from Quebec is about as long as the list of charismatic contenders for the Republican presidential nomination.

He owes his majority to the west and Ontario, regions that have chafed at Quebec's political dominance over the last century. After 1968 it seemed a vain hope ever to see a prime minister from another province lasting longer than a month or two in office. And the national unity question seemed to mean that every dispute involving Quebec's interests was immediately elevated to a matter of national survival. Quebec referendums (or the "neverendum") felt to many like a cocked gun at the country's head with the trigger finger belonging to sovereigntists who despised Canada.

So when the Conservatives finally won their parliamentary majority expectations were high that many policies that had seemed to confer unearned advantages on Quebec would be swept aside.

But Harper is no revanchist. He aspires to win more seats in Quebec in the future. Yet he must also deal with the pent up frustrations of much of the rest of the country. And he is finding it hard to strike the balance.

The two recent decisions that reveal this deep ambivalence dealt with the naval shipbuilding contract and the distribution of seats in the Commons.

On the shipbuilding contract the Conservatives spared no effort to come up with a process that would be seen to be fair and transparent, ostentatiously awarding the contracts on merit and not political criteria. In this Harper was surely reacting to the fury ignited in the west by the Mulroney government's decision to award a fighter plane maintenance contract to a Quebec firm in preference to a Winnipeg company that had actually submitted a bid judged superior by government officials. The firestorm that erupted led directly to the birth of the Reform Party and ultimately sealed the fate of the Progressive Conservatives.

This time the contracts have gone to two companies, one on each coast, leaving Quebec's Davie shipyard the wallflower at the shipbuilder's ball. Quebeckers, used to these things being rewarded for reasons of political power and patronage, are outraged and will challenge the decision, but it was the right one and should stand. The only way in the long run to reduce regional tensions is to make such decisions on the basis of merit, so that all Canadians feel they have a fair crack at government business if they provide good quality at a competitive price. Chalk one up for Harper.

His apparent climb down on his proposed expansion of the House of Commons, however, is the exact opposite of the shipbuilding decision.

Successive governments diluted the principle that all Canadians should be equally represented in the Commons. Fast growing regions were never granted the number of seats justified by their burgeoning population; the distribution of political power in the country thus always lagged the distribution of people and growth.

As a down payment on fixing this, the Conservatives promised that 30 new seats would be added to the Commons and that these seats would be divided up among BC, Alberta and Ontario, the long under-represented provinces. Even 30 seats would not have wiped out the distortion, but would have gone a good part of the way to correcting it.

In the face of Quebec handwringing about loss of influence, however, Harper has reportedly blinked. The number of new seats is to be reduced and Quebec is to be granted additional seats too, even though its Commons representation is almost exactly what its population would warrant.

This smacks of the bad old days and ways. Instead of applying an unassailably fair principle (equal representation of all Canadians in the Commons), the government has caved into threats and intimidation.  This is a pity, not only because of the damage it does to parliament's ability to represent all Canadians, but also because it wrongly assumes that Quebeckers will not accept the basic fairness of rep by pop.

There are lots of political issues where Harper can give ground to Quebec because there's no fundamental principle at stake. But where the fairness and integrity of our institutions is concerned, there should be no room for horse trading.

Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

 

 

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