UPFRONT

GETTING LOST IN BELGIUM

Harper’s musings about federalism show he’s unprepared for national leadership

Mary Janigan November 8 2004
UPFRONT

GETTING LOST IN BELGIUM

Harper’s musings about federalism show he’s unprepared for national leadership

Mary Janigan November 8 2004

GETTING LOST IN BELGIUM

ON THE ISSUES

Harper’s musings about federalism show he’s unprepared for national leadership

Mary Janigan

THE JOKES about Stephen Harper’s peculiar penchant for Belgium federalism have subsided. But no one should forget this bizarre episode—if only because it raises unsettling questions about the Tory leader’s political instincts and common sense. There he was in mid-October in Quebec City, heartening party faithful with promises of political gains, when he decided to muse about federalism: Belgium has institutions representing its three linguistic groups. “I want my party to consider how this model could be adapted to Canada,” he said, suggesting francophone and anglophone bodies could regulate broadcasting.

Even on paper, this notion is quixotic. Its apparent appeal lies in the fact that new powers would be granted to linguistic groups—not provinces—so how could anyone argue that Quebec would be getting special status? But Quebec would hardly agree to the dilution of its voice in a national francophone body. And Belgium is hardly a model of federal peace: its geographic and linguistic assemblies only underline and perhaps even exacerbate tensions.

Under attack, Harper then cited Spain, where Catalan and Basque “autonomous communities” have more powers than their peers who want similar ones. “It is useful to look at other models,” says Queen’s University political scientist Ronald Watts. “And Canada has been far too reticent to recognize asymmetries about Quebec.” But then this expert’s expert sighs:

Why on earth would the Opposition leader ratchet up the debate to include such divisive proposals at a time when we have social peace?

“Political institutions are not easily transferred from one country to another. And the constitutions of both

Spain and Belgium are relatively new works in progress.”

Federations are not static creations. The seemingly endless struggle between Ottawa, which uses its cash clout to spend in areas of provincial jurisdiction like health, and the provinces, which have huge responsibilities and often lack funds, lends disputatious texture to our history. When Paul Martin concluded a side deal with Quebec on health recently, even members of his own party muttered ominously about the dangers of special status. This is a worthwhile debate: which level of government can better determine local needs? Can we trust provinces like Alberta, which is resisting Ottawa’s yoke, to spend federal cash wisely?

Today, we have a hard-won measure of social peace in Canada, including Quebec. Why on earth would the Opposition leader ratchet up the debate to include such divisive proposals? Asymmetry is not a new notion: the Constitution itself allows for shared jurisdictions—and Quebec has run its own immigration program for decades. “He has shown a casual approach to a serious issue,” says Martin loyalist and consultant John Duffy, author of a fine Canadian political history. “To be prime minister, you should know enough not to muse airily about altering the federation.” Duffy cannot resist a partisan jab: “That really speaks very negatively about his preparedness for national leadership.” He’s right.

So where does this leave us? A chastened Harper is scurrying back to issues like defence and fiscal integrity, where his real chances lie. But his ill-advised foray has allowed Martin to depict himself as a moderate: a side deal with Quebec on child care could be struck now with scarcely a squawk. As for a real debate on our growing asymmetry, forget it. The federation will survive. Anyway. ilfl

Mary Janigan is a political and policy writer. mary.janigan@macleans.rogers.com