Charest's Gamble

Even if Quebec takes its place at the table of confederation, its role and influence will continue to diminish over the years


Friday, July 11, 2003
The premiers are meeting in Charlottetown to find ways to revamp federalism without opening the constitutional Pandora's Box. Sounding a lot like the Reform Party's first slogan, "The West Wants In," Jean Charest and his provincial counterparts are calling for more of a say in the way the federal system functions.
They want more power and more money. And not necessarily in that order. Ever since Jean Chrétien cut transfer payments and racked up huge surpluses, frustrations have mounted in many provinces on a number of issues. With the sovereignty question out of the way for a while, perhaps a very long while, grievances can now be voiced safely without feeding the sovereignist dragon.
So it's no wonder the premiers are musing about the arrival of a die-hard federalist Quebec premier, a real "Canadian through and through," as Ontario's Ernie Eves likes to put it. And Charest came bearing gifts as an added bonus. The first gift is to play nice and stay away from that nasty constitutional issue. The second is his profound belief Canada can be improved and strengthened without having to resort to threats of secession should the status quo continue to prevail.
The third gift is the idea to set up an office on fiscal imbalance so provinces can agree on how to extract more tax dollars from Ottawa to deliver public services. But Charest's ultimate gift is the proposal to create some Star-Trek-sounding "Council of the Federation" where provinces can co-ordinate a common approach on a number of demands.
This council is a perfect reflection of Charest's triple-C vision of federalism: concertation, co-management, co-operation. It's also the product of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown traumas after which many Quebec federalists came to accept the new Canadian realpolitik: Look for ways to make do with the current system or improve it slightly without jeopardizing it by stirring up the other, more infamous, C-word - constitution.
In the immediate future, the Council of the Federation is meant to help provinces create a more formal power base in preparation for two major events that could affect provincial-federal politics: the crowning of Paul Martin as prime minister and the review of equalization payments that's due in 2004.
Unlike such other Quebec Liberal leaders as Robert Bourassa, Charest is foregoing separate Quebec demands. His hope is for the council to create an interprovincial agenda through consensus-building, whereas in the past, Ottawa has often faced divided provinces fighting for their own distinct interests.
That might be Charest's hope, but the next years will tell whether it is a pipe dream or a realistic goal. He might face very real obstacles before he reaches that pot of gold at the end of the federal rainbow. One is that, even with the council, provinces will continue to have many differing and contradictory interests. And Ottawa knows that well.
Chances are it will go on practising its usual divide-and-conquer strategy and offer provinces more bilateral administrative agreements. It might even be easier for Ottawa to do so because five provincial elections are looming. They could take quite a bit of energy away from building an interprovincial agenda and result in some new premiers who might have different goals.
But whatever happens, Ottawa is sure to win in a number of ways. First, Charest's council is the expression of a much more co-operative, integrated vision of federalism than has ever been defended by Quebec federalists. And it is they, now, who are encouraging other provinces to engage in such a vision.That's a major political victory for Ottawa a mere eight years after it nearly lost the referendum.
Second, whatever demands rich Ontario and Alberta put forth, what can they do should Ottawa fail to satisfy them? Threaten to become richer? So there's no price to pay for saying no.
Third, even the Parti Québécois and the Bloc Québécois are obediently closing ranks with the Charest Liberals on fiscal imbalance. In doing so, they continue to fail miserably at making even the smallest case for sovereignty on a major issue that demonstrates the necessity of their own constitutional option.
Fourth, as the years pass, Quebec, even as a member of some Council of the Federation, will continue to see its political and demographic weight dwindle within Canada and with the federal government. At a time when the Bloc risks losing a number of seats in the next federal election, Quebec's influence in the federal Liberal Party is decreasing. This week, the Globe and Mail reported out of its whopping 450,000 members, Ontario members stand at 126,000, whereas Quebec members number only 65,000, or a tiny one-seventh of the total.
So although Charest might well "want in" to Canada and its federal system, but chances still are that Quebec's place and role will decrease as time goes by.

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