MONTREAL — Federalists are scratching their heads in Quebec.
For the sixth election in a row, the Bloc Québécois won the largest number of seats in the province, sending to Ottawa refuseniks who do not partake in the governing of Canada and who want to break up the country but wish Quebec to take more from it before leaving.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Conservatives were supposed to win another 15 to 25 seats, thereby capturing a parliamentary majority and sending the Bloc toward marginality.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had got Parliament to recognize the Québécois as a "nation" within Canada. He had sent billions of additional dollars to the provinces to solve the "fiscal imbalance," an idea invented by Quebec.
Mr. Harper had boasted about "open federalism," code words in Quebec for more authority. He had used loaded words such as "autonomy." He had showed up at a rally with Mario Dumont, leader of the Action Démocratique du Québec, who wants a very loose (and fundamentally unworkable) confederal arrangement between Quebec and Canada, and whose own code word is "autonomy."
In word, gesture and deed, Mr. Harper had stroked and courted nationalists in Quebec, expecting electoral appreciation. He had stared down grumbling in his own caucus, and in Conservative circles of Western Canada, by arguing that this strategy would win the Quebec seats necessary for a majority government. Mr. Harper proudly boasted that, courtesy of his approach, Canada had never been more united.
Except that the strategy exploded in his face. Conservatives got the same number of seats as before. Worse, he was sabotaged by Quebec Premier Jean Charest, whose deliberate and devastating attack on Mr. Harper when the campaign began helped the Bloc, as Mr. Charest, a "federalist," surely must have known it would.
The Conservative campaign, or so the postmortem analysis goes, unravelled over small cuts to cultural programs and a tough-on-crime promise for juvenile offenders. Also, Mr. Harper preformed feebly in the French-language debate.
Mr. Harper's previous policies were apparently pocketed and forgotten. Forgotten, too, were his other Quebec-friendly promises: a Charter of Open Federalism, fettering the federal spending power, more French-speaking commissioners on the CRTC, more money for TV5, the international French-language television channel.
What lessons can be drawn from this debacle, for the Conservatives and federalism?
Obviously, the Conservatives' support before the election was wide but thin, as evidenced by the trap door opening beneath them after two small errors.
The party had few effective ministers or candidates. Worse, head office in Ottawa imposed a gag order across the country. As a result, Conservative candidates in Quebec were fleeing the media, refusing to participate in all-candidate debates. The freakish, centralized message control of the Harper government proved utterly counterproductive.
The Conservatives had also made a fundamental error in thinking they could rely on Mr. Dumont's ADQ, which is fading in Quebec. The provincial Liberals, not the ADQ, have the organization. But as Mr. Harper saw, Mr. Charest is an untrustworthy partner only interested in his own re-election - and that means attacking Ottawa almost all the time. Conclusion: The Conservatives have to try to build their own organization.
What about for federalism?
As more authority and money are transferred to Quebec, the federal government becomes less and less relevant. This, in turn, encourages the belief that a vote for a party not interested in the governing of Canada is risk-free because Canada itself isn't that important, except as a source of money.
The way Mr. Harper and Mr. Charest behave, federalism is all about more money and authority for Quebec. It's not a system of give and take, of mutual obligations and sharing, but of a one-way transfer and of more "autonomy" (Mr. Harper's word) and defending Quebec's "interests" (Mr. Charest's word).
Federalism, therefore, is judged by what it gives rather than what it requires. This way of thinking plays perfectly to the Bloc's strength, which is all about having influence without assuming responsibility, of taking but not giving.
Some federalists think Mr. Harper was on the right track. He screwed up during the campaign but should resume the transfers of power and money. Others observe that the Bloc got only 38 per cent of the vote. Support for secession is at a low ebb. If the federal Liberals ever got their act together, they would do much better in a fundamentally liberal province.
But the next Liberal leader will almost certainly be a non-Quebecker. Quebeckers have never voted for a party led by a non-Quebecker faced with one led by a Quebecker.
Mr. Harper met the same fate as all previous non-Quebec leaders, and might well again. He can certainly improve his tactics, but, if the strategy isn't working, better tactics won't save it.