Prime Minister Stephen Harper correctly observed last week that an early election would probably result in another minority government. Who knows whether another year would rearrange the political deck so a party could win a majority?
Quebec largely holds the answer to the minority/majority question, because a large swath of its electorate has refused to participate in the governance of Canada for some years now.
Depending on time and circumstances, one-third to nearly one-half of Quebeckers support the Bloc Québécois, a party dedicated to secession. By definition, it cannot be part of government because it does not believe in Canada.
The Bloc's interests lie in defending Quebec's "interests" in Ottawa, which usually means extracting from the government what can be had for Quebec. The governance of the whole country is of no interest to the Bloc, unless that governance affects Quebec.
The Bloc is a missionary party extolling the virtues of an independent Quebec, while acting as a purely utilitarian one in Ottawa. These roles please the largest number of French-speaking Quebeckers who, like the Bloc, are no longer much interested, if at all, in the governance of a country to which they are only casually attached.
Secessionists, if they bother to vote federally, prefer the Bloc because its missionary objectives conform to their goal: independence for Quebec. But many other French-speaking Quebeckers vote for the Bloc, not because they fervently want secession but because the Bloc is a bargaining lever to extract concessions from Ottawa.
We saw that this week with Bloc demands that Mr. Harper's government steer more benefits to Quebec from a Boeing contract, a new twist on an old refrain whereby the part of the country least enthusiastic about the military is among the most enthusiastic about getting military contracts.
French-speaking Quebeckers now practise political triangulation. They have a provincial government, Parti Québécois or Liberal, that presses their interests in Ottawa. They have an opposition party, the Bloc, that presses only their interests in Ottawa. And they have a federal government, Conservative or Liberal, that pays attention to their interests because both major federal parties need votes in Quebec to win a majority in Ottawa.
This triangulation leads to minority governments in Ottawa, because the Bloc effectively removes from government a majority of Quebec seats. It becomes arithmetically difficult - but not impossible - to form a majority with so many seats out of play.
Before the Bloc's creation, at the time of the Meech Lake accord's demise, Quebeckers always preferred to participate fully in the governance of Canada by voting for national parties. They wanted their ministers and MPs to look after Quebec's interest, to be sure, and these politicians were judged on that basis. But they were also fully engaged in national affairs, including governance.
Now most Quebeckers apparently believe that their province's influence is best sustained by not being part of any governance, but rather by supporting a Quebec-only party to press a federal government that is in constant quest of a majority, the securing of which likely runs through Quebec.
Behind this calculated triangulation lies another. By keeping alive the threat of secession, Quebeckers ensure that federal politicians will be especially attuned to Quebec's demands, in case political ill humour pushes more Quebeckers into supporting the PQ and, thereafter, perhaps secession.
Yesterday, a CROP poll showed the federal Liberals up nine points since November, to 29 per cent in Quebec (the Stéphane Dion factor), the Tories up two points to 23 per cent, and the Bloc down eight to 34 per cent. Those numbers explain why the Bloc will do cartwheels to avoid an early election.
At 34 per cent, the Bloc would take the largest number of Quebec seats, thereby making a majority government difficult. According to CROP, Liberal gains have come at the Bloc's expense. The Bloc remains the preferred party of the largest number of French-speaking voters, some of whom like it for its missionary position, others for its steely utilitarianism.
As long as the largest number of French-speaking Quebeckers keep making these triangulations, partly based on an apparent lack of interest in the governance of Canada, Parliament will be hostage to minority governments.