Is the Bloc becoming federalist?


October 8, 2004 Friday
The opening of the 38th Parliament in Ottawa was one of the most theatrical we've seen in decades. With the ink on the Throne Speech still fresh, the survival of the Liberal minority government was already hanging in the balance.
Behind the show biz and posturing we're seeing from all parties, the danger that we'll be rushing back into another election is real, but relative. Even the two party leaders who huff and puff the most about bringing down Paul Martin's government have no interest in pushing it that far.
Stephen Harper's New Conservatives have five months to go before they even hold their first party convention. As for Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Quebecois, it has obviously peaked and can only lose some of its 54 MPs should it send us back to the polls. But they best beware: They could get get what they wish for if they push Martin too far.
In his column yesterday, my colleague Don Macpherson also noted how MPs might want to stay so as to not endanger their eligibility for pensions and severance pay. In fact, at an annual salary of $141,000, being an MP is not a bad gig to want to keep as long as possible.
Although the government survived last night, there will be more such votes and if the Liberals lose one there are still options other than a general election.
Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson could ask Harper to form a minority government and try to get the confidence of the House. This possibility is why NDP leader Jack Layton was so livid on Wednesday.
Layton let a strange cat out of the bag when he said: "Mr. Duceppe told me if the amendments are adopted and there's a show of nonconfidence in the government, we can have another party leader as prime minister. This could allow Stephen Harper to take power with the tacit support of the Bloc."
Conservative House leader John Reynolds reacted crudely by calling the NDP leader a "flake." Yet, conspiracy theories notwithstanding, could Layton be on to something?
There does seem to be a real political game being played between the Bloc and the Tories. For some months now, both parties have been cozying up quite a bit. Although Duceppe denied them, last spring there were persistent rumours of both leaders privately discussing the possibility of the Bloc propping up a minority Conservative government.
One thing that has facilitated this rapprochement is the slow but certain shift we've been witnessing in the Bloc's discourse and political philosophy over the past year.
For some time, the Bloc has been singing the Parti Quebecois refrain on fiscal imbalance - although it is a federal-provincial issue of interest mostly to federalists. But the Bloc has taken to openly defend the classic nationalist position in Quebec, one that's perfectly aligned with Harper's talk of protecting "provincial jurisdictions" and condemning federal centralization and encroachments.
This week, Duceppe's troops went as far as to defend asymmetrical federalism, foregoing any mention of the S-word. This prompted Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Lucienne Robillard to note the irony: "The Bloc has become federalist. Long live asymmetrical federalism!"
It's one thing to "defend Quebec's interests," as Duceppe likes to say. But it's another to espouse so completely the provincialist discourse of Harper and Jean Charest. Just a while ago, it seems, Bloc MPs were rising in the House to defend sovereignty, not asymmetrical federalism.
This change in the Bloc's positions surely has helped to warm up relations with Harper. With such an odd couple, some see this as nothing more than a marriage of convenience. Commentators say it's bound to dissolve soon, given perceptions in English Canada that the Bloc is a separatist demon out to destroy Canada.
Although the changes in the Bloc's discourse haven't hit western provinces quite yet, they're still very real. That's why Layton could be on to something, not only in the short term, but for a few years to come.
As it continues to embrace the provincialist approach, the Bloc is bound to become more and more integrated into the federal dynamic and federal-provincial matters. As the years pass, Bloc MPs are settling down and getting quite comfortable playing the federal game.
With a trouble-ridden PQ moving farther away each day from a return to power next election, the Bloc's integration into the federal dynamic could deepen. As someone asked this week on an open-line radio program: "How can we expect the Bloc to promote sovereignty if it keeps defending federalism, asymmetrical or any other kind?"
Interesting question, indeed.

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