If a flag doesn’t flap and nobody makes noise, is it a flag flap?

A few notes on a controversy that refuses to be a controversy

Quebec’s new Parti Québécois government is getting right down to delivering on the priorities of Quebec’s voters by removing the Maple Leaf flag from the National Assembly’s Salon Rouge. Reporters in Ottawa promptly went to the NDP to seek reaction, and there were some titters on Twitter this morning because two of that party’s MPs, Alex Boulerice and Charlie Angus, declined to touch the question with a barge pole.

This prompted me to wonder aloud — well, a-Twitter — what the Government of Canada thinks about the subject, because we do in fact have one and as of today it’s not run by the NDP. This is an evolving quirk of the low-level ambient neurosis in Ottawa (from which I’m obviously not immune) over the election of a PQ government: everyone keeps running to the NDP to test its bona fides on national-unity questions, while ignoring the actual government of actual Canada. Tom Mulcair spent the weekend explaining his position on the appropriate referendum majority needed to procure the secession of Quebec. Stephen Harper spent his weekend not having to do that.

But this time, my colleagues did put the question to the PMO, and Mercedes Stephenson over at CTV received this response: “We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past…Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and sound management of the economy.”

A few notes on this controversy that refuses to be a controversy, despite our best efforts.

First, there is ample precedent for this blasé attitude. PQ members of the National Assembly have never been sworn in in the presence of the Canadian flag. I didn’t hear anything about it in 1994, and I don’t recall reading about any fuss from Trudeau’s Ottawa in 1976. As a general rule it’s a good idea for federal governments to refrain from making suggestions about protocol in provincial legislatures.

But among the very small number of Quebecers who’ll read the Harper government’s statement on the flag issue, I suspect for most the reasoning in the statement will ring quite false. Francophone Quebecers to whom I’ve spoken do not suspect the prime minister is overly focused on jobs, economic growth and sound management of the economy.

Rather, the Conservative Party is consistently as popular in Quebec as the NDP is in Alberta, and the PM appeared as a cartoon villain in the PQ’s main campaign ad, because Quebecers believe the prime minister is focused on appealing court decisions on the gun registry, multiplying public references to the Crown, re-fighting the War of 1812 and appointing unilingual candidates to serious offices.

So: Right on substance, to both the Conservatives and the NDP, but wrong, Conservatives, on spin. Concentrating on the economy? To many Quebecers, that would be an excellent idea and the only question is when the Conservatives plan to begin.

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