Liberals engaged in damaging debate over Quebec

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

By combining a policy convention with a leadership vote, the federal Liberals were hoping to kill two birds with one stone: Elect a new leader and present the country with fresh ideas. Now, that decision is coming back to haunt them.
If the party had not put those two events back to back later this month, it would not have found itself embroiled in a self-destructive debate over Quebec's place in the federation. In more serene circumstances, the resolution that calls on the party to recognize Quebec as a nation and to appoint a committee of experts to look into ways of giving meaning to that concept would have been seen for what it was attempting to be: a reflection of a constructive consensus between various leadership factions.
Far from resulting from a showdown between the camps of Michael Ignatieff, Stephane Dion and Bob Rae, the resolution that was overwhelmingly adopted by the Quebec wing of the party a fortnight ago was the result of the concerted efforts of supporters of all three candidates.
At the meeting it was put forward by professor William Hogg, a Dion delegate. He was acting at least in part on a recommendation from former justice minister Martin Cauchon, a key member of Rae's Quebec campaign.
At the time, none of those involved had cause to think they were introducing a major wedge issue into the leadership campaign. The Quebec wing had been discussing the move since last spring, long before any leadership candidate had spelled out an approach to federalism. Over the past few months, the four top contenders had all expressed support for the concept that Quebec is a nation.
Indeed, when the Prime Minister equivocated on the issue last June, Dion was front and centre in the Quebec media, criticizing Harper for failing to acknowledge the obvious.
The resolution was also drafted to take Rae's refusal to open the door to a new constitutional round into account by keeping any reference to the Constitution out of it.
But even if it had not, the notion of enshrining Quebec's distinct status in the Constitution is hardly a Liberal heresy. Jean Chretien wanted to do exactly that after the 1995 referendum. It was only after he failed to bring Ontario premier Mike Harris on side that he fell back on a parliamentary resolution committing the federal government to take Quebec's distinct status into account in all of its decisions.
Thus, when Ignatieff suggests that the issue of Quebec's formal recognition will eventually have to be addressed in a constitutional way, he is actually in synch with federal Liberal orthodoxy - at least as it evolved over the Chretien era.
There is an element of desperation to the current debate. If Rae and Dion have embraced this battle with such a passion, it is because the first needs all the arguments he can find to overcome the reluctance of many Ontario Liberals to go into a campaign carrying his baggage as a failed NDP premier and the second has yet to convince nine out of 10 delegates from outside Quebec to rally to his cause.
In federal politics, trying to score leadership points by engaging in a bidding war on who can sound the toughest on Quebec has worked in the past.
But the fighting words that have been uttered over the course of such battles have usually turned out to be hollow.
In the 1983 Progressive Conservative leadership campaign, Brian Mulroney accused Joe Clark of being soft on nationalists, only to subsequently court those same Quebecers with a vengeance.
Chretien surfed to victory against Paul Martin and Sheila Copps in 1990 on an anti-Meech ticket and then went on to promise to urgently address the issue of Quebec's distinct status less than five years later, in the dying days of the referendum.
Stephen Harper got his start in politics by denouncing what he described as an unholy alliance between Mulroney and Quebec nationalists and then won power by holding his hand out to them.
Almost a year ago today, the very same pundits who are up in arms over the Quebec Liberal resolution were predicting that voters in the rest of Canada would make the Conservative leader pay dearly for his election overtures to Quebec. In the end, Harper's promise of a more open federalism gave him enough Quebec seats to become Prime Minister.
In sharp contrast with federal leadership campaigns, Canadian elections are usually won by reaching out to Quebec.
Chantal Hebert's national affairs column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
chebert @

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