Will Quebec genie fit back into bottle?

Divisive Liberal debate unlikely to die quietly

La nation québécoise vue du Canada

The economist Adam Smith once noted that when people of the same trade meet, they tend to conspire against the public interest. Something similar is happening in the Liberal Party, where representatives from a number of leadership camps are currently discussing an amendment to a resolution that will be raised at the party's convention later this month which recognizes Quebec as a "nation."
It is inevitable that all will eventually sign onto a proposed amendment that "clarifies" the existing resolution. The current debate is too corrosive for anyone to gain from it, so we can expect a revised resolution along the lines of, "whereas Quebec is a nation, now is not the time to open up the constitution." The rival camps will then issue a joint statement saying they have reached an accord in the interest of party unity and, like Bobby Ewing's death in Dallas, all will dismiss the whole incident as a bad dream.
The signs point to a conspiracy dressed up as a compromise. The Michael Ignatieff camp is downplaying the issue, pointing out that all we are talking about here is a resolution at an opposition party's convention, which recommends the formation of a task force to study the issue of Quebec's status.
There is no more talk, as there was in June, of discussing ways to bring Quebec into the constitution, or of giving Quebec new powers. Ignatieff's handlers have clearly realized that this is his "jump the shark" moment (to continue the '70s TV motif, this derives from an episode of Happy Days when Fonzie literally jumped a rubber shark, after which audience figures deserted the show in droves).
Even the Bob Rae campaign, which has clearly enjoyed the opprobrium heaped upon Ignatieff for dredging up the issue, will want to see it submerged again, lest he inherit the leadership of a party riven along its traditional fault lines.
The Trudeau wing of the party is horrified by recent developments. Senator Serge Joyal, a cabinet minister under Trudeau, has seen the constitutional wrangling of the last three decades up close and has no wish for the country to go back there. "The concept of 'nation' is a political trap. It doesn't lend itself to acceptable definition," he said, adding the resolution should be dropped.
"We've had bad experiences and we should learn from our past."
But it seems it is the Turner/Martin wing of the party that is in the ascendancy and anyone who thinks it is about to let go of this issue, should talk to Jean Lapierre, who was Paul Martin's Quebec lieutenant in the last two elections. He argues the party should go further to recognize the "Quebec difference."
"The only federalist who gave an opening to Quebec in the last election was Stephen Harper and he was pretty well rewarded. I think we should take a lesson from that," he told me.
Lapierre was all crocodile smiles, joking that he was sure the story would have a "happy ending" but there is no doubt he would be considerably less thrilled if delegates reject the resolution.
This, after all, is the man who left the Liberal Party to help found the Bloc Quebecois after the defeat of the Meech Lake Accord. He wouldn't be drawn on his response to a hypothetical watered-down resolution, but was adamant that he "likes it the way it is."
The leadership camps are now trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle. But even if they succeed in reassuring Liberals that "now is not the time" to reopen the constitution, this divisive and energy-draining debate will be with us for some time, particularly if Ignatieff triumphs.
This resolution may have been conceived by the Liberal Party of Quebec independent of the leadership process but it was given life by the political expediency of Ignatieff, who saw gains in Quebec.
His advisers have fanned out to spread the message that he is not committed to opening up the constitution. But that just does not square with his statement that "we must" recognize Quebec in the constitution.
On the contrary, as one prominent Western Liberal said, "we must not give Quebec anything." "This is a gift to those who long for the national navel-gazing days, because doing things like the economy, health, education and jobs is too hard."
In some ways, it doesn't much matter what delegates to the Montreal convention do now. Ignatieff has broken the non-proliferation pact that kept the constitution out of the nation's political affairs for more than a decade. Having gone nuclear, there's no going back.
But nobody should be fooled by any "compromise" amendment that suggests the Quebec issue has been put to bed.

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