Since first being elected to the House of Commons in 1968, at a time of great national unity, I have never witnessed a Canadian prime minister consciously decide to disunite the nation. Until now.
After failing to bring forth an essential stimulus package last week, Stephen Harper has betrayed the fundamental obligation of a prime minister: to build and strengthen national unity in possibly the world's most difficult federation to govern.
Beginning last week, Mr. Harper has sought to avoid a legitimate vote of confidence and its unpleasant consequences not by sober or even merely partisan constitutional arguments but, culminating in Wednesday's television address, by a barrage of deliberately gross distortions. He is turning a serious dispute over the need for immediate economic stimulus into an unrelated and dangerous matter of national unity.
In the 1980s, Pierre Trudeau made a mistake in key elements of the national energy program that negatively affected the attitude of many in Alberta and Saskatchewan not only toward him but to Central Canada in general. Although his policy had that effect, no one, including myself, who was critical of parts of the program accused Mr. Trudeau of deliberately alienating Western Canada.
Now, for the first time in our history, we have a prime minister prepared to set a fire that we may not be able to put out, for the paltry purpose of saving himself from a confidence vote on Monday. In almost every sentence, paragraph and page coming from Mr. Harper, his ministers and Conservative MPs, we're getting distortions intended to delegitimize a democratically formed coalition, proposed in accordance with normal parliamentary practices, between the Liberals and the NDP.
The Conservatives have tried to link the coalition with a demonized Bloc Québécois and Quebec. Mr. Harper wants to buy time in order to stir up support from a majority in English Canada. He is turning a serious constitutional and legal issue, on which he knows he cannot win a confidence vote, into a political battle of national unity, calculating that the numbers are on his side.
Instead of focusing on accommodation, on the need for early action on the economy, Mr. Harper is launching hypocritical attacks that can lead to a national disaster, and, with the time prorogation has granted him, he will no doubt continue to promote disunity. Consider the following falsehoods that he, his ministers and their party are spreading:
1. The Bloc is part of the Liberal-NDP coalition. It's not. But it is providing needed stability by signing an agreement not to bring down the coalition during its first 18 months. Mr. Harper has relied on the Bloc 14 times in votes, and twice on budget ones.
2. The Bloc was promised six Senate seats. The Bloc, of course, is opposed to the Senate. No such offer exists.
3. According to Mr. Harper, the Canadian flag did not appear behind Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe during their press conference. This is false. The flag was visibly there.
4. The Bloc would have a veto on all the actions of the coalition government. False. The Bloc did not ask for, and was not given, such a veto. In fact, its agreement not to bring down the coalition means the opposite is true.
5. Mr. Harper and his supporters are calling all "sovereigntists" in Quebec "separatists." Although a great number of Quebeckers would call themselves "sovereigntists," a large majority of them are certainly not separatists.
Mr. Harper has failed to provide the stimulus that Canada needs as pensioners suffer and jobs bleed. The coalition would provide the stimulus, part of it immediately, if given the chance. Virtually all elements of the Liberal-NDP stimulus package were designed to appeal to all of Canada (including EI, bankruptcy, housing and infrastructure, child care, reforms to protect workers and pensioners). A few had a regional focus (the Wheat Board, forestry and the concerns of senior workers). None were designed to give Quebec preferential treatment. The central objective was to quickly follow the lead of the 19 other G20 countries and stimulate the economy to protect Canadians and promote early economic growth.
Instead of following constitutional precedent and allowing a democratic confidence vote to take place when it should, we have a power-hungry man who will be recorded as the first prime minister in Canada's history to deliberately create a political crisis and set the fire of national disunity.