Constitutional trial balloon won’t fly

Harper and provinces in no mood to mess with federal relations to suit Quebec

www.montrealgazette.com
mercredi 8 août 2007

In a carefully orchestrated leak, the Charest government has served notice that it wants a new constitutional round to entrench what it calls "a Charter of Open Federalism," adopting the language of Stephen Harper’s famous Quebec City speech, and effectively throwing his own words back at him.

In a Canadian Press story played prominently by Le Devoir yesterday, Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Benoît Pelletier was all too available to confirm that Quebec would be "very, very insistent" on advancing open federalism on the division of powers between Ottawa and the provinces and specifically limiting the federal spending power.

For such a charter "to be entrenched," Pelletier said, "would be a very beautiful contribution to modern Canada." There is no room for doubt about where Quebec is going with this. Entrenchment involves a constitutional amendment under the general "7/50" formula, requiring the assent of Parliament and the legislatures of seven provinces comprising 50 per cent of the population.

Why would Quebec want to go down this road ? Quite simply, so that Jean Charest could outflank Pauline Marois and Mario Dumont as a defender of Quebec’s interests. The Parti Québécois could never support anything with the name federalism on it, and the ADQ, in the name of its autonomist tendencies, might be forced into doing so. It is a means for Charest to play a trump card on the Quebec identity file, where the Liberals are perceived as weaker than the other players in the minority legislature.

Except that constitutional amendments require dance partners, and no one is coming to this federal-provincial dance. There isn’t any interest in re-opening constitutional talks and, and after the way Charest botched the fiscal-imbalance file, there isn’t any support in the rest of the country for anything remotely resembling even one more concession to Quebec.

More’s the pity, because until then Charest was doing so well in managing the all-important federal-provincial file. His very success in pursuing gains for Quebec, and achieving them largely in partnership with Stephen Harper, made the point that non-constitutional means are much more productive, under a lot less pressure.

To review the bidding, the Council of the Federation was Charest’s idea in the 2003 election, and its subsequent creation was entirely due to his good relations with Quebec’s provincial partners, all of whom were anxious to help him out. Then, in a 2005 Toronto speech, he laid out an agenda for federal-provincial progress, including a role for Quebec at UNESCO and recognition of the fiscal imbalance. In his Quebec City speech during the 2006 election, Harper essentially read Charest’s words back to him.

Charest and Harper have since delivered on the essentials of that agenda. And then there’s the matter of Quebec as a nation within a united Canada, resolving a thorny symbolic question that bedeviled federal-provincial relations for two generations.

All of that was entirely to Charest’s credit, and the biggest gain of all was the increase to equalization and transfer payments in the resolution of the fiscal imbalance file, $2.3 billion next year alone.

And then, driving to the goal line, Charest inexplicably dropped the ball by announcing that the entire $700 million in new fiscal-imbalance money would be allocated to a tax cut.

Not only was this seen as a cynical ploy to bribe the voters with other people’s money, it reminded voters of Charest’s previous broken promises on tax cuts. It was incredibly short- sighted and politically obtuse.

It damaged Charest’s standing as a leader of the federation all across the board. The Harper government, blindsided by the announcement, had no choice but to be supportive of it. And in the provinces, Charest’s colleagues knew they could never again go to the well of the fiscal imbalance. Leading economists, and students of federal-provincial affairs, who had invested years in pushing the fiscal imbalance rock up the mountain, know the issue will never be discussed again, let alone taken seriously again.

And yet the Charest government, through Pelletier, now wants to reopen the Constitution to limit the federal spending power, and couch it in Harper’s own words.

For one thing, this is too clever by half. For another, it is a complete misread of both the political temperature and the public’s mood in the Rest of Canada. However disposed Harper, as a proponent of classical division- of-powers federalism, might have been to such a gambit before Charest blew it on the fiscal imbalance, the prime minister can hardly entertain it in the context of Quebec’s having got what it asked for, and coming back for more.

Sorry, but as they say in the South, that dog won’t hunt.

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