Money and the federalist vote


Friday, April 18, 2003
On Monday night, it was no coincidence when a victorious Jean Charest invited former premier Daniel Johnson to join him on stage. It had something to do with the weight Johnson has been pulling in Charest's transition committee. But it was also a symbol of the vision they share regarding federalism and Quebec's role in Canada.
That vision was summarized in 1993 by Johnson when he announced his candidacy to succeed Robert Bourassa: "I am Canadian first and foremost." Although at the time he paid a hefty price for those six words, he was simply acknowledging the end of an era in Quebec politics. As the words left his mouth, the Liberal Party was turning the page - closing the entire book, in fact - on decades of attempting to increase the power of Quebec within Canada and obtain for it special recognition through a renewed constitution. The fact that this "quiet revolution" on the constitutional front happened in 1993 was no coincidence either.
Bourassa had just retired after failing twice at renewing the constitution. Both the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 and the ensuing debacle of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992 had left Quebec federalists facing a cruel reality: the constitutional game was over for good. It became clear that no one in the Rest of Canada or in Ottawa would dare throw the country into another constitutional psychodrama. Both of these failures confirmed the refusal of most Canadians to negotiate any special status with Quebec while federalists understood that another failure would help sovereignists demonstrate that Quebec will never become an "equal partner" with the ROC.
Johnson's statement illustrated the need for Quebec federalists to reconcile themselves with three new facts of life. One, that they stop making demands that would be rejected so as not feed the sovereignist dragon. Two, that they better learn fast to embrace the Canadian identity and try to communicate it to francophones. Three, that they accept the "provincial" status of Quebec and be satisfied with mostly administrative changes. That, at least, they could obtain.
This happens to be the kind of staunch federalism that Jean Charest believes in, and the kind his government will advocate. As federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion puts it, this is no "conditional Canadian." Hence the reconciliation with Daniel Johnson, who, ironically enough, was put out to pasture in 1998 to make way for Charest as the new federalist saviour thought to be capable of defeating the PQ's own messiah of the time, Lucien Bouchard. Nothing like a common vision to heal old political wounds.
So with the PQ defeated and the Bourassa-style nationalism safely out of the way, various commentators are hailing the dawning of a brave, new era for federalism. "Make love, not constitutional renewal" could be its motto. But all that newfound affection will serve one very mundane, mercantile purpose: getting more of our money from Ottawa.
Which brings us to another irony. It's the Parti Québécois government that turned this fiscal imbalance thing - the new mother of all federal-provincial issues - into the dominant theme of Quebec politics. And it was none other than Lucien Bouchard who, in his resignation speech of January 2001, identified what he called the "strangulation" of Quebec finances as the next big struggle to undertake.
When he became premier, Bernard Landry gladly followed his predecessor's order. He named Yves Séguin, a federalist and probable minister of finance in the Charest government, to head a commission on fiscal imbalance. Landry championed inter-provincial alliances to get Ottawa to pay up and took the leadership among his provincial colleagues. And guess what? That's exactly what Charest plans to keep doing with his "bureau" on fiscal imbalance: co-operate, take the leadership and build alliances. Even the Bloc Québécois has been enrolled by the premier-designate in this oh-so-provincial quest. Just one big, happy Quebec family busy fighting for more money. Oh well. Sovereignty will just have to keep waiting.
And the family just keeps getting bigger. While Paul Martin still denies the existence of fiscal imbalance, he just opened the door to putting "more money" into health care and education. "We can work together on those things," he said. No doubt the price to pay for this blissful co-operation will be an increased role of the federal government in those same provincial jurisdictions. Even the "council of the federation" that Charest wants to create should facilitate the whole process.
It's amazing what the promise of a big cheque from Ottawa will buy you these days: greater co-operation from federalists and sovereignists alike, and further federal intrusion in our jurisdictions as an added bonus. Like the song says: "Money makes the world go around."

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