Prime Minister Harper Must Satisfy Quebec

"This is my third interview with Maclean's," Benoît Pelletier says.

Prime Minister Harper Must Satisfy Quebec

"This is my third interview with Maclean's," Benoît Pelletier says. "The first two times I was nothing - nothing!"

To illustrate, Quebec's minister of Canadian intergovernmental affairs grinds an imaginary, tiny Benoît Pelletier under his heel. "The last time I went to Maclean's, there were 10 people around the table. And not a word in the magazine."

But now? "Now, people are finding me more interesting. They say, 'There's something going on in Quebec.'"

Pelletier did not actually invite me to the Quebec government's Ottawa office for a session of media criticism, although come to think of it, since everyone's doing it, one more couldn't hurt. And although Pelletier, a former constitutional law professor who is Jean CHAREST's point man for relations with the rest of Canada, has a healthy sense of his own worth, neither did he summon me so he could celebrate his own newsworthiness.

If Benoît Pelletier is suddenly more interesting, it is only because he shines - or hopes to - in the reflected light of Stephen HARPER. One big reason the Conservative leader is now Prime Minister is that he managed to win 10 seats in Quebec on Jan. 23. He did it partly through sheer diligence, but partly with promises of concrete action on files that Charest and Pelletier have made high priorities.

The easy one, in a way, is a chance for Quebec to send its own delegation along with Canada's to some international meetings. Paul MARTIN showed some interest in this, then suddenly a lot less. Harper promised Quebec could at least send a separate delegation to UNESCO, the United Nations forum for cultural discussions. The harder one is Harper's promise to "fix" the so-called fiscal imbalance, which is the name given to the assertion that the federal government has more money than it has things to spend on, whereas the provinces have more needs than money.

So with this new government in Ottawa, Pelletier is practically beaming. "I do recall that a few months ago, when I was talking about the role of Quebec at the international level and in UNESCO, there was a great skepticism from you guys," he says. "Guys like you, Paul, who were skeptical about this subject."

Guilty. As a rule of thumb, I've argued that Canada, which is one country, should not send more delegations to international forums than the European Union, which is 25. Martin spent his last year in office arguing that Canada should "speak with one voice," and as a rule, if Martin said something, there was a poll somewhere saying a lot of Canadians agreed. Harper argues, accurately, that there's a precedent for his offer of a UNESCO sidecar for Quebec. Quebec (and New Brunswick) already send separate delegations to the meetings of La Francophonie.

It's the "fiscal imbalance" file that may be harder to settle. André Boisclair, the Parti Québécois leader, has argued that getting the spare money from Ottawa to the provinces would cost $6 billion for Quebec alone - and about $24 billion for the whole country.

Pelletier is careful neither to endorse this figure nor reject it. "Well, we never mentioned a specific number. What we said, however, is that it is a global issue that needs a global solution. And it is a structural problem that needs a long-term solution."

Global and structural? Uh-oh. Adjectives almost never come cheap. "First, a global problem. So it involves equalization payments, transfer payments, it's related also to the splitting or the sharing of the fiscal pie." Translated, this means that Pelletier wants changes both to spending and to taxing. Less federal spending, less federal taxing. More provincial spending, more provincial taxing. How much? "The numbers will come with the analysis." Translation: stay tuned.

It won't be easy. Ontario's government, for instance, has noticed that every extra dollar in the equalization system is a dollar Ontario's government doesn't get, because equalization goes only to less affluent provinces. "This is why we believe in a global solution," Pelletier says. "I mean, if you look at only one aspect, let's say equalization, then there might be winners and losers.

"But if you look at fiscal imbalance in its global perspective, then in my view all the provinces and territories will win, eventually. What one province could lose on the equalization question it could gain on another question, transfer payments or different things like that."

No losers? Wouldn't Ottawa lose? Yes, but in Pelletier's reading, Ottawa should. See "fiscal imbalance," above.

"Don't be mistaken," Pelletier says. "The goal is not to weaken Canada. The goal is not to diminish the authority of the federal government. And the goal is not to have the provinces taking control of the country. The goal is to have a more flexible federalism. Because the main value of federalism is its flexibility."

And if Harper delivers less than Pelletier wants? Jacques PARIZEAU, still the separatists' unofficial chief strategist, was predicting last week that Harper had raised expectations in Quebec he couldn't satisfy, always a prospect to warm the hearts of separatists.

Pelletier promises there will be no repeat of the Meech psychodrama. First, none of his demands involves constitutional change. Second, "You have probably noticed that I never threatened Canada. I never said that if you don't give me this, we will secede. It's not the question. Secession is not on the table." Which is good news. It's not quite the same as saying that a happy Benoît Pelletier represents a future free of challenges for Stephen Harper.

Maclean's February 13, 2006