When you see them on television or in the House of Commons making speeches, they look like grown men. But they act like children playing with matches. You warn of the dangers -- to themselves and to others -- but they refuse to listen. Sooner or later they get burned, and when they do they don't understand how it happened. What a tragedy.
How often have you heard it said that it would be dangerous and foolish for the federal government to pander to Quebec nationalists by giving Quebec special status within the federation and by throwing inordinate amounts of money across the Ottawa River? How frequently have you been reminded that this sort of behaviour (coupled with out-of-control spending and patronage excesses) is exactly what killed the political legacy of Brian Mulroney?
More times than you can count, right? I even remember this guy, a certain Stephen Harper, who used to be a pretty strong libertarian when he was running the National Citizens Coalition, and who used to be very much opposed to the federal government's using tax dollars from Ontario and Alberta to bribe Quebecers into suddenly starting to love Ottawa. Wonder what happened to him?
He ought to be ashamed of himself. Instead he, and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, looked awfully pleased with themselves on the front pages of newspapers. Why, their budget is perfectly crafted to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who can't count. (Did I miss something during last year's campaign? Did we somehow vote the Liberals back in?) Oh yeah, Mr. Harper and Mr. Flaherty were also mighty happy with their "historic" settlement of the so-called fiscal "imbalance." "It's the end of the discussions," exulted Mr. Flaherty. "C'est fini."
[Here we take a quick break to laugh uncontrollably.]
True, the feds are promising to send just under $40 billion in the next seven years to selected provincial governments, particularly the one that will not, under any circumstances, shut up about said "imbalance." But if you think that money will be enough to end the "discussions," you are not mature enough to be put in charge of managing my backyard shed, never mind the federal treasury.
It's quite simple: No matter how much money the federal government sends to Quebec City, it will never be enough to stop Quebec politicians -- no matter how theoretically "federalist" they pretend to be -- from demanding more.
According to a nifty pie chart in Tuesday's La Presse, Quebec will be getting 30.8 per cent of federal transfer payments in 2007-2008, even though it has well under a quarter of the country's population. How has this been described by most politicians and commentators, including "autonomist" Mario Dumont?
As a step in the right direction.
Nobody, not even Liberal Premier Jean Charest, who is gloating about his admirable success in federal-provincial extortion relations, believes "c'est fini." In the Montreal Gazette on Tuesday, I read that Mr. Charest, "who was counting on Flaherty to hand over more money in equalization payments and increased transfers for post-secondary education, said there will be more talks on post-secondary funding." (I also noticed that he promised to use $700 million of this year's extra money to cut Quebecers' taxes, thereby showing that he doesn't even take his own fiscal-imbalance theory seriously.
Wasn't the problem meant to be too much tax revenue in Ottawa and too many spending needs in the provinces?)
So, other than yet more demands for more money, what will Mr. Harper's government get for its troubles? It may well help Mr. Charest get re-elected and who knows, itself as well later this year.
If that's the ultimate goal, then I guess Mr. Harper has a decent shot at success by behaving exactly like those Liberals he insisted did not deserve re-election. Congratulations, you have been Ottawashed.
If there's more to the Conservative party than power for power's sake, things aren't so rosy. Especially when the prize, such as it is, comes at the cost of further annoying provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
And, ahem, what's going to happen when -- not if -- Quebecers decide to elect the Parti Quebecois or some other sovereigntist party? How many more times will the feds have to help the nominally federalist party by "solving" the fiscal "imbalance"?
Every time federal politicians try to appease Quebecers by throwing money and special status (hello, nation motion) at them, they only manage to increase the price of keeping them sort of temporarily not too unhappy -- without ever making the threat of separation go away. Especially not from the West.
I say it again: Please put those matches down or you'll set the place on fire.
Brigitte Pellerin's column appears Tuesday and Thursday.