This is the thanks they get?
Just before triggering the election Canadians now find themselves in, Justin Trudeau announced that his government would give Quebec $6-billion over five years, money the province could spend any way it wanted to on its child-care system.
Quebec Premier François Legault was delighted. While the Trudeau government has also negotiated $10-dollar-a-day child-care agreements with several other provinces, those deals all come with conditions on how the billions of dollars in funding can be used.
But in Quebec, home of the low-cost, subsidized daycare that is the model for the federal program, there are no conditions. Mr. Legault praised this quid pro quo for “respect[ing] the jurisdiction of Quebec,” and called it a “beautiful victory for Quebec families.”
Mr. Trudeau took some heat in the rest of Canada for the asymmetrical deal – giving the province $6-billion to do what it was already doing – so you’d think it would have earned him some points in Quebec City. But cut to last Thursday, and there was Mr. Legault criticizing the Liberals and the NDP for being too “centralist,” and praising the Conservatives for promising to increase health transfers to the provinces with no strings attached.
“I insist on no conditions,” Mr. Legault said at the traditional “I insist on no conditions” news conference that Quebec premiers hold whenever a federal election is called and the federal parties promise to power-spray the country with federal dollars.
That’s most certainly not how Mr. Trudeau planned for his daycare gift to play out. Instead of some timely praise, he saw the Conservatives get a backhanded endorsement from Mr. Legault – the most popular politician in Quebec – while he got a kick in the shins for promising to give the provinces $3-billion to hire 7,500 doctors and nurses, and another $3-billion to improve long-term care.
“People need to realize the government of Quebec is better placed to pick priorities,” Mr. Legault said.
This is a spectacular example of why it’s a mug’s game for federal politicians to try to buy favour with Quebec premiers.
Not that this is Mr. Legault’s fault. It’s his job, as it is for every premier, to protect the interests of his province, and his own political interests as he sees them. He and his counterparts have been pushing Ottawa to increase its share of health funding through the Canada Health Transfer, which comes with few conditions, from 22 per cent to 35 per cent of provincial health budgets.
But Quebec is not like the other provinces. It’s a battleground state, for one, holding almost a quarter of the seats in the House of Commons. There may not be a lot of them in play this election, but there are enough to make a difference.
On top of that, Quebec premiers are self-styled gatekeepers of the French language and culture, and Mr. Legault believes he has considerable sway over the province’s voters, who are more open than most to suddenly switching political allegiances. (See the NDP Orange Wave, 2011.)
Because of this, Mr. Legault was able to demand, and get, silence from federal party leaders on Bill 21, the unconstitutional law that bans the wearing of religious garb, such as hijabs and kippahs, in public-facing government jobs, but which survives because of the notwithstanding clause.
His political dominance also paid off in June, when all the federal parties voted in favour of a motion to “acknowledge the will of Quebec” to unilaterally add clauses to the Constitution stating that Quebeckers form a nation whose official language is French.
And when Mr. Legault compares one federal party unfavourably to another in the middle of a tight election campaign, there’s no doubt he wants everyone to believe it will be a consequential act.
But before the Conservatives become too pleased with themselves, they should remember how Mr. Trudeau was schooled in Quebec réalpolitique last week.
It’s in the interest of Quebec’s premier to keep the federal parties on their heels, reinforcing his claim to be the only true representative of the province’s voters.
That means that shaping policy in the hopes of pleasing Quebec City rarely pays off. You can be the hero one week, and a bum the next. It would be great if the federal parties figured that out, but we’re not holding our breath.
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