Old dogs, old tricks, and a PM curiously unruffled

Harper wisely stays away from an existential debate over Quebec

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

Will everybody calm down about Belinda Stronach if somebody refers to a Liberal man as a dog? All righty then: here's Jean Lapierre, Paul Martin's hand-picked Quebec lieutenant in 1990 and 2004, returning to his strategy of constitutional blackmail like a dog to its vomit.

Lapierre has taken to darkly warning Liberals that they must not fail to pass a resolution "recognizing" the Quebec "nation." "Every time the Liberal Party of Canada has refused to recognize Quebec's difference, it has cost us dearly," Lapierre told reporters last week. "In the period of the distinct society" -- i.e. when the Meech Lake accord was collapsing in 1990 -- "the Liberal party refused to recognize that and it led to the Bloc Québécois."

Readers should avoid being misled by Lapierre's use of the pronoun "it." In this instance, "it" means "I." Lapierre walked out of the Liberal party in 1990 and helped found the Bloc. Now Lapierre is essentially levelling the same threat. Usually when history repeats itself, it gets new players. This time it's like those stunt revivals of The Odd Couple they used to do with Walter Matthau playing Oscar again.
All of this is happening because Michael Ignatieff landed fresh off the boat and didn't get properly briefed on the distinction between those two subtle Canadian concepts, a "good idea" and a "really freaking bad idea." As a direct result, the Liberal party is tying itself in knots over whether, and how, to "recognize" the Quebec "nation" in the Constitution.

Of course, the Ignatieff camp indignantly replies that their man has no interest in reopening the Constitution. Which is why Ignatieff said, during the Quebec City leadership debate: " 'To constitutionally recognize Quebec as a nation is difficult.' Well, yes it is difficult, but it has to be done." Oops. So maybe he is interested in reopening the Constitution. Never mind.

What's interesting about this whole debate is that none of it has touched Stephen Harper, who was still the Prime Minister of Canada, last I checked. He won't let the word "nation" pass his lips when it comes to Quebec. Yet Montreal columnists who are furious at the Liberals for raising, then debating, Quebec's status can't spare a moment's scorn for Harper.

I will lose valuable Friendly Anglo points in Quebec for saying this, but what the heck: if an existential debate over Quebec's place in Canada can be ignored without cost by the governing party, that's the proof that it's not a serious issue. And the party of trivial issues these days is the Liberal Party of Canada.

For the past two weeks, Ralph Goodale, who used to get handed the tough cabinet portfolios by Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, has been up every day in the House of Commons trying to prove that one Liberal MP, the above-mentioned Belinda Stronach, was called a "dog" by her former steady date, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. Ralph Goodale used to be in charge of Canada's natural resources. He wrote a budget last year, and then, because Paul Martin was his boss, he wrote another one a few weeks later and a third in the taxi on the way home. He used, in other words, to obsess about the real lives of real Canadians. But for an unconscionably long time this autumn he was reduced to defending Stronach's honour.

Cards on table: as far as I'm concerned, MacKay did call Stronach a dog. It was boorish of him. He should have apologized. His refusal to do so speaks ill of him. There. How long did that take -- about eight seconds?

With a gun to my head I couldn't figure out how to make that argument last half a month. Especially not if I was supposed to be concentrating on how Canadians might be better governed. Somehow the Liberal party has become an oddly whimsical club, devoted lately for the most part to appeasing Jean Lapierre and protecting Belinda Stronach. Somebody else can look out for the little guy; this crew is on the side of talk-radio hosts and heiresses.
Yet there is a market in this country for a serious party interested in serious things. The Harper government has stalled, perhaps not irreversibly but stubbornly, in its attempts to grow its appeal beyond the narrow coalition that gave the Conservatives a fingernail-hold on power in January. Harper's foreign policy and disdain for serious environmental policy have cost him enough support in Quebec to jeopardize every one of his 10 seats there. It's hard to imagine him winning a majority if an election comes in the next few months.
But Harper is dug in deeply enough that it's also hard to imagine him losing much ground outside Quebec. He remains the Keith's India Pale Ale of political leaders: those who like him, like him a lot. This is partly because his government seems preoccupied with the real lives of real Canadians. Whereas the Liberals are stuck in virtual reality. It will be their next leader's job to haul them down to earth.

Read Paul Wells's weblog Inkless Wells

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