Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have Quebec in his sights throughout 2007.
Quebec was supposed to be in the Conservatives' crosshairs in 2006, but the focus got blurry. The government found its electoral popularity, a temporary phenomenon to be sure, melting in Quebec under the heat of the Israeli-Hezbollah war, global warming and the Afghan commitment. With that melting went the Conservatives' hopes for a majority government.
Other parts of Canada will occasionally figure in the Harper government's strategic calculations this year, but again all dominant political issues will run through Quebec. Sound familiar?
Mr. Harper's top strategic objective will be to assist Quebec Premier Jean Charest's re-election and, by helping him, help Canada and the federal Conservative Party. A Charest defeat would bring back the secessionists in Quebec City, plunging Canada (and Quebec) into another debilitating period of federal-provincial turmoil, useless existentialism, nationalist haranguing and possibly economic hemorrhaging.
Avoiding that fate would serve Canada well, and Mr. Harper will do what his government can to help. A tacit but strong political alliance sealed through this federal help would assist Mr. Harper's Conservatives in Quebec, because they need more seats there to win their majority government. They could also avoid an early election, since a slightly buoyed Mr. Charest is likely to call a spring vote, and no federal party wants a national election at the same time.
Mr. Harper already bowed to Quebec nationalism with his sudden parliamentary resolution declaring Québécois to be a nation in Canada. Just before the Christmas break, he announced two other decisions in Quebec: reselling expropriated land at Mirabel, and waiving federal environmental objections to another massive flooding project wanted by Hydro-Québec.
Sharpening the government's climate-change approach, led by a new minister, might help in a province that takes global warming seriously, partly because low emissions from hydroelectricity make Quebeckers feel virtuous.
Mr. Harper has often promised to deal with the Quebec government's mythological creation, accepted as unassailable fact by most Quebeckers -- the "fiscal imbalance." That there are no good grounds for believing that this imbalance -- renamed "balance" by the Harper government -- exists has not shaken Quebec's demand for a solution, or the Conservatives' need to provide one.
It goes without saying that whatever concoction the federal government settles on -- likely a stew of higher equalization payments, federal money for postsecondary education and infrastructure investments -- will be denounced as humiliatingly inadequate by secessionists. They can never be satisfied, but Mr. Charest must be, for he has insisted that this problem exists and expects that it will be solved.
Last fall, in a brazen move, Mr. Charest's government announced hundreds of millions of dollars of postsecondary financing it did not have in its own budget but presumed would eventually flow from Ottawa as part of the "fiscal imbalance" solution. Were Ottawa to provide few, if any, funds to solve this non-problem, the failure would be instantly interpreted as a rejection of Quebec, a slap to Mr. Charest, and a reneging by the Conservatives on their election promise.
Ottawa's trouble in solving this non-problem also flows from having a much smaller surplus than Quebec and the other provinces believe. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty predicted surpluses of $2-billion to $3.6-billion yearly until 2012 in his November economic update, nice cash to be sure but not the outsized bundles conjured up by provincial rhetoric.
Still, something has to be done for Quebec -- and to give effect to the Conservatives' campaign promises. Something else might be offered up, too, such as the transfer of federal powers to provinces, or the withdrawal (with cash compensation?) of Ottawa from joint areas.
The Conservatives often talk about concentrating Ottawa's attention on federal responsibilities, the inference being Ottawa does too much and should hand things over to provinces. Inference, however, does not always lead to action.
This decentralist view plays well in Quebec. It also dovetails with the Conservatives' ideological preference for smaller government, although shifting burdens from one level of government to another doesn't actually shrink governments' role.
For Western Canadians, get used to it. You gave yourself as hostages to the Conservatives. They know you're not going anywhere politically, so not much heed must be paid. Quebec, smarter, plays hard to get and harder to satisfy.