Majority rules: Back to work

A Harper majority will face tough challenges, and Quebec will still be front and centre

Back to work

Ian Jackson/CP

There’s nothing like a short attention span to make everything feel brand new. For a month, the people who buzz in Ottawa have been abuzz with speculation about what a Harper majority government will be like. But this is hardly alien territory. Stephen Harper has been Prime Minister, albeit in shakier circumstances, since 2006. He’s becoming a known quantity. And majority governments are hardly unheard of in Canada. We had them, most recently, for nearly a quarter-century without interruption from 1980 to 2004, from Trudeau to Mulroney to Chrétien.

Now the 41st Parliament is convening in Ottawa to elect a Speaker on June 2, hear a Throne Speech on June 3 and watch Finance Minister Jim Flaherty deliver his seventh budget speech on June 6. The best bet is that Flaherty’s budget will be like the one he tried to introduce in March, before the Harper government was defeated. The likelihood is that a majority government now will work the way majority governments usually do. And the odds are that Harper-with-a-majority will be a lot like Harper-without-a-majority.

The next few weeks will have a phony-war feel to them. Real changes and big fights will wait for the autumn. For now there will be recycling, with hints of bigger fights ahead.

Harper made it clear during the campaign that he would re-introduce his March budget with few modifications if re-elected. Partly that’s because the government needs a budget to operate. It’s also partly because the Prime Minister wants to demonstrate the futility of the opposition parties’ move to defeat his government, so soon after this budget’s first appearance in March.

It’s already clear Harper will look for other ways to rub his victory in a little. When he shuffled his cabinet he kept ministers whose budget allocations (Tony Clement) or memo-writing style (Bev Oda) had bought his last government months of controversy. He appointed three failed Conservative candidates to the Senate. He permitted the quiet return of a staffer, Kasra Nejatian, who seemed to have resigned in disgrace in March after mistakenly faxing details of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s fundraising activity to an NDP MP.

Harper’s political opponents, especially the Liberals, sought to frame the recent election as a referendum on the way Harper governs. Harper won big. He reads the result as an endorsement of all he has done until now. He will govern himself, and Canada, accordingly.

Unfettered by any real opposition? Free at last to implement his secret agenda? Not at all. This is where students of Canadian history would do well to read some, or simply to recall what life was like for Mulroney and Chrétien. Both men enjoyed parliamentary majorities, so both could win every vote that came their way in the Commons. But a majority government isn’t a four-year vacation from politics. A government needs to get re-elected. It must keep an eye on public opinion. Crafty opposition parties have a shot, every day, at influencing the public.

This is where Jack Layton and his rookie MPs come in. The NDP leader is a skilled parliamentary performer. He knows how to talk in sound bites. His ability to spot an issue that will catch on, even among voters who didn’t think they liked the NDP, has often been underestimated.

Layton has already come up with an attention-getting gimmick for the return of Parliament: he is forbidding his MPs from heckling their colleagues during question period. We’ll see how long the New Democrats can keep that resolution. But while it lasts, that much respectful silence will be noticed. It will help put the NDP on the good side of an electorate that came to view the bickering of the Harper minority years with disgust.

Every once in a while, however, the 103 NDP MPs will have to say something. A theme is already emerging in the public remarks of Layton and his colleagues. Not the only theme, just the dominant one. That theme is Quebec.

This is no surprise. Fifty-nine of Layton’s MPs, 57 per cent of his caucus, come from Quebec. But the province is hardly a captive market for the NDP. A gust—the collapse of the Bloc Québécois—blew the NDP to dominance in Quebec, and a new breeze could blow it right back out. Quebec voters awoke after the election to discover they were represented, in a few high-profile cases, by political rookies who lived outside their ridings and knew little about local issues.

So Layton and his new parliamentary House leader, the mercurial Outremont MP Thomas Mulcair, must keep proving to Quebecers that electing all those New Democrats wasn’t a beer-goggle mistake that must be undone at the first opportunity. Not surprisingly, they have already put Quebec concerns at the centre of the NDP policy agenda.

The two national party leaders’ springtime disaster-zone tour schedule gives a hint about where each party’s political centre of gravity lies. Harper visited the site of wildfires in Slave Lake, Alta., and the Manitoba flood zone. Layton saw the Manitoba floods in the last days of the election campaign, but he has not been to Slave Lake. Instead, on May 30 he pulled on hip waders and visited St. Paul de l’Ile aux Noix, Que., to complain that Harper hasn’t done enough for flood victims there.

Layton has also signalled he will demand that Quebec get more seats in a reallocated House of Commons than its population share would warrant. He continues to suck and blow on whether he supports the Clarity Act, which would have Parliament judge the clarity of a future Quebec referendum question, and then again on the clarity of the result. He will call on the Harper government to apply “key principles” of Bill 101, the Quebec French language law, to federally regulated workplaces in Quebec. Unsurprisingly, this has Quebec anglophones worried.

This will go on and on. Remember Régis Labeaume, the little mayor who wants the rest of Canada to bankroll a hockey arena in Quebec City? Harper rejected the idea after flirting with it for a long time. Layton still thinks Labeaume’s wishes should be Ottawa’s command. The NDP’s pacifism will align with Quebec elites’ pacifism when it comes to extending Canada’s participation in the stalled air campaign against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

In short, there will often be days when the new NDP will be hard to distinguish from the old Bloc Québécois. That’s reasonable. The good people of Quebec deserve vigorous advocates in Canada’s Parliament as much as anyone else does. But it will pose headaches, not only for Layton but for Harper.

Ninety-seven per cent of Harper’s MPs were elected outside Quebec. He would have a majority even if his five Quebec survivors had lost with the rest. His political interest, as currently constituted, lies outside Quebec, and to the extent a given issue can be framed as a confrontation between Quebec and the rest of Canada, Harper’s caucus and his voter base will not have a lot of natural sympathy for the Quebec point of view.

But that’s now. Harper wins because, like Layton, he has been better than Liberals at planning and preparing for future elections. The NDP put those dozens of Quebec seats into play but it may not own them forever. Harper will be disinclined to preside over a government that simply rejects Quebec or works around it. That was the message he sent by naming four of his five Quebec MPs to his cabinet. It’s the message he sends by his silence as Layton struggles with questions about the Clarity Act. As a former Reform party national unity critic, Harper used to claim paternity over the Clarity Act. He hasn’t been doing that lately. Hasn’t been saying much of anything, really, on the issues Layton has identified as the NDP’s Quebec issues.

It has never been obvious how a conservative party with much of its base in Western Canada should respond to Quebec. In 1995 Tom Flanagan, working in close co-operation with Harper, wrote a book called Waiting for the Wave, ostensibly about Preston Manning’s leadership of the Reform party. Flanagan noted that Manning “has used a portfolio of positioning strategies” to keep Reform relevant. Sometimes it posed as “the party of the right,” a traditional conservative movement; sometimes as “the party of the West,” supporting regional demands whether they were strictly conservative ideals or not; sometimes as “the party of the hinterland” against the urban elites—and sometimes as “the party of English Canada.”

That last bit is obvious enough. Reform had no Quebec MPs. It opposed the Meech and Charlottetown accords, although Harper and Flanagan had to talk Manning into the latter position. In the last days of the 1997 election, Manning ran as a blocker against other parties with their “leaders from Quebec.” But even in the ’90s, Flanagan wrote, Manning saw himself “as ultimately becoming the leader of a pan-Canadian Reform party including a strong contingent of francophones from Quebec.”

Harper cherishes that goal even more strongly than Manning did because he has come so much closer to attaining it. He will resist the urge to lead a “party of English Canada.” But it will be in Layton’s interest to push him into making that choice, again and again. The return of majority governments is not the only blast from the past for today’s Ottawa. We can also look forward to the return of Quebec to the centre of many of our national debates.

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