Tuesday, March 27, 2007

James Laxer: The Significance of the Quebec Election Results

I find this an exceedingly interesting article. If Laxer is correct new national programs are very unlikely since the provinces must initiate them. This will weaken the federal government substantially. The Federal government can concentrate on building up the military to help out in US pre-emptive wars and national social programs can wither away. This is from Rabble.

Quebec, and Harper's 'Grand Bargain' of the right

The rise of Mario Dumont's ADQ, which ran a close second in Quebec is even more helpful to Harper than the mere re-election of Jean Charest's Liberals would have been.

>by James Laxer
March 27, 2007

The results of the Quebec election open the door for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to act on a proposal he made a few days before Quebeckers voted that has fateful, long-term implications.

Along with delivering so much money to Quebec in the recent budget that the Bloc Québécois has decided to support it, Harper declared that if Quebeckers elected a federalist government, Ottawa would negotiate a deal with Quebec that would severely restrict the power of the federal government to undertake spending initiatives in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

The federal government's right to spend on whatever it likes, the so-called “spending power,” has underlain Ottawa's initiation of national shared-cost programs, the classic case being medicare. Another case is the Trans Canada Highway. These programs, in areas of provincial jurisdiction, were launched when the federal government enunciated the principles on which the plans would be based and offered money to those provinces that agreed to set up such programs on their territory.

In return for Quebec's acceptance of this version of a dramatically de-centralized federalism, Harper would either legislate (or seek a constitutional amendment) to remove Ottawa's right to make such initiatives in the future. The new rules would apply to the federal government's relationship with all the provinces, not just with Quebec. This Grand Bargain would fundamentally remake Confederation.

Such a change in the basics of Canadian federalism would, for instance, bar Ottawa from launching the kind of national early childhood education program to which both Liberals and New Democrats are pledged. In a more distant future, it would block any attempt on the part of Ottawa to substantially lower the cost of tuition for colleges and universities in an effort to prevent post-secondary education from again becoming the preserve of the privileged.

With his proposed Grand Bargain, Stephen Harper would bring his over-arching objective of a Canada, not only with a market economy but with a market society as well, much closer to fruition. Gone would be the potential to establish national programs to create common standards across the country. At the federal level, progressive liberals and social democrats would be blocked from undertaking initiatives to advance the cause of greater social equality.

Harper's Grand Bargain, the re-casting of Canada according to a right-wing agenda, was implicit in the election in 2006 of a Parliament in which neo-conservatives and sovereignists held the majority of seats. If it were consummated, the Grand Bargain would complete the work begun with the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA in the 1980s and 1990s. It would constitute the social counterpart to the economics of free trade. Not coincidentally, it would rest on the Quebec-Alberta alliance that gave birth to the FTA and NAFTA.

The rise of Mario Dumont's ADQ, which ran a close second in Quebec is even more helpful to Harper than the mere re-election of Jean Charest's Liberals would have been. Harper may soon try to maneuver the calling of a federal election in which he hopes to win seats where the ADQ has blazed the trail.

Dumont is even further to the right than Charest and would make an ideal partner for Harper in Quebec. His ADQ is reminiscent of the old Union Nationale and Dumont is making a bid to be the Maurice Duplessis of the 21st century, a politician who wants to govern Quebec on the basis of his hold on small towns and cities, a vague romantic nationalism, and an antagonism for Montreal.

There has always been a potential progressive alternative to the Grand Bargain of the right. It would rest on Ottawa making a deal with Quebec to establish an asymmetrical federalism in which federal initiatives would be carefully circumscribed in the case of Quebec but not in the cases of the other nine provinces.

Over the past two decades, progressives have repeatedly failed to see and act in terms of the larger strategic picture. They have allowed themselves in their shortsightedness to be defeated piecemeal by the right, in battle after battle. Progressives have not yet lost the battle over the Grand Bargain. But they are well on their way to losing it.

Stephen Harper's Grand Bargain with Quebec would place the capstone on the edifice of a right-wing Canada, which neither Quebeckers nor English Canadians want. Progressives who reject the idea of a stripped-down market society need to understand the stakes in the next federal election. It is one they cannot allow the Conservatives to win.

James Laxer is a Professor of Political Science at York University in Toronto.

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