Harper and Charest Cooking up a Plan

The Quebec election campaign now underway - at least, we expected it to be underway by now when we went to press on Tuesday - will settle a lot of questions, as big elections often do.

Harper and Charest Cooking up a Plan

The Quebec election campaign now underway - at least, we expected it to be underway by now when we went to press on Tuesday - will settle a lot of questions, as big elections often do. Perhaps the most elusive is this: just what have Stephen HARPER and Jean CHAREST been talking about all this time?

Last June 23, to pick one date among many, the Prime Minister was in Quebec City with his cabinet for a full-day meeting. The next day he was scheduled to attend a picnic in the Beauce riding of his promising young minister, Maxime Bernier. But unbeknownst to reporters who were following him, Harper sneaked out of his hotel in the evening after the cabinet retreat and met privately with Jean Charest.

When we found out about it, weeks later, we shrugged. Harper has met more frequently with Charest than with any other premier, and more than any Canadian prime minister has met with any Quebec premier, at the very least, since Lester Pearson and Jean Lesage in the 1960s. They've long since stopped bothering to tell their respective press corps when a meeting takes place, or to report on the outcome when a meeting ends. But it is obvious to all concerned that Harper and Charest, who sat only a few seats apart in separate Reform and Progressive Conservative caucuses in the House of Commons from 1993 to 1997, have spent the past year building one of the most unusual and important relationships in all of Canadian politics.

Now the product of their handiwork is about to face a pair of road tests. First in Charest's provincial election on March 26, and then in a federal election that will follow weeks or months later.

It couldn't be more obvious that the two leaders are cooking up something. Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will bring down his second budget on March 19, a week before Quebecers vote. Harper has been telling people it will provide his solution to the "fiscal imbalance," the impression that Ottawa has more revenues than it needs, and the provinces not enough. It's simply impossible to believe either the timing or the content of the budget are incidental to the confrontation among Charest, Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair, and Action Démocratique du Quebéc Leader Mario Dumont. Or that the outcome of that provincial election will be less than pivotal to what follows nationally.

While we wait to see how it all turns out, Canadians will be greatly aided by the new book from Chantal Hébert, the Toronto Star columnist who may be the country's most consistently insightful analyst of federal politics, especially as it plays in Quebec. French Kiss: Stephen Harper's Blind Date With Quebec (Knopf Canada, in bookstores Feb. 27) examines the roots and potential outcomes of Harper's Quebec game. "Stephen Harper connected with Quebec in 2006 because he found a thread between his essentially right-wing agenda and the aspirations of Canada's least conservative province," Hébert writes. "That thread is the tenuous one of respect for the areas of responsibility devolved to the provinces by the Constitution."

Perhaps the key word here is "tenuous." Like any relationship in its early stages, Harper's date with Quebec has been marked by mood swings and dominated by the still wide open question of whether it can possibly last. Hébert writes that Harper could never have got this far in Quebec if the Liberals had not spent years diligently preparing the ground there by screwing up on file after file. Anyone in Canada who cares about politics will find French Kiss a rewarding read. But for Liberals who still believe their drubbing in Quebec was due only to bad luck, a fickle press corps or the ugliness unveiled by the Gomery commission, Hébert's book offers a harsh but necessary corrective.

"By 2004, the Liberal Party of Canada had become an Ontario party in all but name," she writes, and by the summer of 2005, in the last four months of Paul Martin's short-lived government, "Martin's Quebec ministers were at the end of their tether." Martin was intruding into more and more areas of provincial jurisdiction with health care initiatives, social measures and a national daycare system that, because it offered less impressive standards of care outside Quebec than the Quebec government already provided inside the province, was "obsolete" in Quebec. Jean Lapierre, the broadcaster turned transport minister, had the backing of all Quebec ministers when he finally confronted Martin at a cabinet meeting, Hébert writes.

"Lapierre complained that the federal government was consistently trampling the provinces' social backyards, while large patches of its own fields were untended. If he had known he would end up running provincial programs, Lapierre said, he would have sought a seat in the National Assembly." Martin's Ontario ministers pushed back - I remember this as the period when Ken Dryden told an Ontario news conference, with a straight face, that Canadians "don't care which level of government provides a service." Martin, who had resided in Quebec for 40 years but whose heart, in Hébert's view, never left the centre-left industrial heartland of southern Ontario, sided with the Ontarians.

The question that does not seem to have occurred to Martin and his Ontario advisers, Hébert writes, is the following: "If the most prominent Quebec members of the Liberal government had trouble with Martin's approach to federalism, who in Quebec would not?"

Quebecers might have stuck with the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, faute de mieux, if Harper had not devoted much of his effort before the 2006 election trying to look a little mieux. He avoided barging into controversies, like the appointment of Michaëlle Jean as Governor General, that might have left him looking like an outsider who didn't get Quebec. He depicted Adscam as a failure of the Liberals, not - the Bloc's strenuous arguments to the contrary - of federalism and Canada in general. And he benefited from an uneasy but long-standing alliance of circumstance between Quebec and his own province. "Since the end of the Trudeau era (and probably in reaction to it), francophone Quebec and Alberta have always been on the same side of the House of Commons," Hébert writes.

Down to two seats in Alberta, and with Chrétien-Martin squabbling paralyzing the party in Quebec, the Liberals were side-swiped by the emerging Harper coalition because they had no antennae where it was built.

There are not a lot of things Chantal Hébert is naive about, and she is certainly not naive about the Harper-Charest alliance's long-term viability. The summer war in Lebanon, the Kyoto debate and other issues have shown that Harper often wants to zig where most Quebecers would rather zag. "It would be delusional to believe that Quebec would for very long offer blind support for federal policies that go against the grain of its collective convictions, in exchange for a bit more provincial autonomy."

But part of what makes the months ahead so exciting is that we can stop guessing about whether Harper's Quebec plan might work, and watch it in action. Already he has tacked sharply in recent days, passing up every chance to make Charest his personal champion and reminding both Quebec voters and his own caucus that Mario Dumont's ADQ is also a legitimate party to vote for. This doesn't look only like skittishness about Charest's chances. It's an expression of the Harper Conservatives' tight grassroots connection to the ADQ around Quebec City. And it reflects the Conservatives' fondest wish that the PQ might be dealt a profoundly dispiriting setback by a Charest-Dumont tag team of convenience. Already some observers in Quebec are wondering whether the PQ under Boisclair might be pushed lower in this election than at any point since 1970.

You see, to answer the question at the top of this column, I suspect that very often, when Harper and Charest sneak off together, their conversations keep turning back to a common irritant. The former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and the founding strategist of the Reform party must surely get around to wondering whether the Liberals get to enjoy a reputation as Canada's party of national unity. Surely Harper and Charest start to talk about how they can destroy the central tenet of the Liberal myth. Kicking the slats out of the Parti Québécois would be a good first step. Going after the Bloc would logically follow.

And what would they do after that? Well, that's between Harper and Charest. For now.

Maclean's March 5, 2007