Don't just credit Jack Layton's joual French accent for the NDP’s Quebec breakthrough. Not since Brian Mulroney has a federal anglophone leader understood the province the way Mr. Layton does. But the price of electoral success was a number of intemperate promises to tempt Quebec voters.
Because the new government is a majority government, Mr. Layton won't be able to deliver on his major Quebec commitment – to extend Quebec language legislation into areas of federal jurisdiction. Mr. Layton has also heightened expectations by speaking vaguely of reopening the Constitution, to create “the winning conditions for Quebec in Canada.”
But these are not the only manifestations of his attempts to seduce Quebec voters. During the campaign, while claiming to support representation by population in the House of Commons – which would give more seats to Ontario and the Western provinces – he promptly contradicted himself, by saying he also supported more seats for Quebec, even though it does not merit such an increase. “We also support retaining the current weight of Quebec,” Mr. Layton told a pre-election Globe editorial board meeting.
That doesn't add up. You can have rep-by-pop, or you can have more seats for Quebec. You cannot have both.
Bill C-12, a bill to better enfranchise the growing provinces, should be reintroduced by the Conservative government promptly, and Mr. Layton should support it, as he was ready to do in the last Parliament. If he backpedals, he needs to explain to all Canadians why votes in Ontario and the West should continue to be worth less than those in Quebec.
Mr. Layton has a unique responsibility in the new Parliament. The Conservatives have just six Quebec seats, the fewest of any majority government since the Unionist war government of 1917. Mr. Harper will not, and should not, pursue the NDP's Quebec proposals. But with the separatist spectre now largely gone from Parliament, the two leaders should work together, fashioning policies that promote national unity without inviting constitutional wrangling.
Mr. Layton cannot stand down from his Quebec promises; they did, after all, propel his second-place finish. But with his new status as the Leader of the Official Opposition, he needs to articulate the same vision of Canada to all Canadians. The test of Mr. Layton's considerable political skills is just beginning.
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