Federal Liberals see road to renewed relevance paved by possible PQ win

MONTEBELLO, Que. – There’s an old saying in business and politics: Never let a crisis go to waste.

The depleted federal Liberals — just 35 MPs strong from the party that ruled Canada for 12 years, from 1993 to 2006 — began meeting Tuesday to plot the latest iteration of their return from the wilderness.

And it’s not difficult to get the impression that, in the minds of at least some federal Liberals, the road back to relevance, respectability and possibly power may be paved by a resurgent sovereigntist movement in Quebec.

With Quebecers at the polls Tuesday and the prospects of the separatist Parti Quebecois returning to office in Quebec City, Liberals see an opening for the kind of brokerage party that made them what journalist Allan Fotheringham famously dubbed Canada’s “natural governing party” in the 20th century.

“It’s more than an opportunity for the Liberal party, it’s a responsibility for the Liberal party,” deputy party leader Ralph Goodale said last week. “We’ve got to be particularly good at making that case.”

Scott Brison, the party’s finance critic, also made an explicit link between the party’s future direction and the outcome of Tuesday’s provincial election.

“The challenge for the Liberal party is to emerge as the party that can best unite the regions of the country to build an economy that works for all Canadians,” he said in the lead-up to the three-day caucus meeting.

But here in Montebello an hour west of Montreal, Liberals gathering as Quebecers cast their votes Tuesday were much more circumspect.

“I very much want to see a federalist result in Quebec and I hope that happens,” Bob Rae, the party’s interim leader, reiterated a half dozen times in a 15-minute scrum with reporters.

Having said that, Rae also repeatedly stressed the Liberals as the party of national unity.

“We do have a special responsibility as a party on the question of unity and the question of leadership in the country. This goes back to the origins of the Liberal party, what we’re all about as a political party.”

It’s an exceedingly fine line for Liberals: Promoting themselves as the federalist party that can mend Canada’s historical divide, while not being seen to be exploiting Quebec’s political turmoil for partisan gain.

Rahm Emanuel, U.S. President Barack Obama’s then-chief of staff, was pilloried in 2009 when, at the height of the financial crisis, he was quoted saying, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste. What I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before.”

Closer to home, Ontario’s education minister created a furor in 1995 when he described a Conservative plan to cut education spending as “creating a useful crisis.”

The fact is, crises are opportunities in politics, but politicos point that out at their peril.

New Democrats also see it as potential opportunity, although Leader Tom Mulcair and his Quebec-dominated caucus have been careful to avoid saying or doing anything that could have an impact on the election outcome.

With 58 of the province’s 75 federal seats, NDP strategists believe their party is poised to be the federalist voice of Quebec.

The downside is that a separatist victory would shine a spotlight on the fact that a handful of the NDP’s Quebec MPs — including former interim leader Nycole Turmel — have supported sovereignty or sovereigntist parties in the past.

And it would draw attention to the NDP’s controversial policy on Quebec — known as the Sherbrooke declaration — which includes the assertion that a bare majority, 50-per-cent-plus-one Yes vote in a referendum would be sufficient to trigger secession negotiations.

Robert Aubin, chair of the NDP’s Quebec caucus, played down suggestions Tuesday that Quebecers could be headed for another referendum.

“Quebecers don’t vote for a country, they vote for a government” in this election, Aubin told reporters in St. John’s where the NDP’s 101 MPs are gathering for a caucus retreat.

Aubin said the NDP will work with whichever party forms government.

However, a PQ victory could also create some tension within the federal NDP caucus between veteran MPs who believe in the need for national, federally-run social programs and Quebec MPs who may be more amenable to PQ Leader Pauline Marois promise to push for provincial control over a host of federal jurisdictions, including Employment Insurance.

Yvon Godin, MP for Acadie-Bathurst in New Brunswick, said Tuesday he is adamantly opposed to Ottawa ceding jurisdiction over EI to Quebec.

“At this time, I’m completely against it,” Godin said in an interview.

“That program belongs to the workers of the country, not to the government. My worry is that Quebec says, ‘Okay, we want to have EI for Quebec,’ and then what stops Alberta to say, ‘We want it too’ and Ontario (to) say, ‘We want it too?’

“Then there’s no more EI. It’s done.”

Aubin would say only that EI will be one of the issues the NDP caucus will be reflecting upon during the retreat.

Meanwhile, for Liberals like Martin Cauchon, a former cabinet minister who is clearly testing the waters for a potential leadership run this winter, the party’s problems are much too deep to be fixed by simply championing unity.

“We strongly believe in the country,” said the Montrealer. “But there’s a way to look at the federation that will be more inclusive …, more respectful of what really a federation is.”

Judy Sgro, another former Liberal cabinet minister who has held her Toronto seat since 1999 and was a city councillor for years before that, detects a change in the country that means, whatever the outcome of the Quebec election, Canadians will take it in stride.

She suggests there won’t be any crisis to exploit for any of the federalist parties, regardless of the vote’s outcome.

Should the Pequistes prevail, Sgro asked rhetorically, “Will people care?”

“I don’t think it’s a particularly healthy thing to see a separatist group get elected in Quebec. But you know what? Maybe we’re getting used to it too.”

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