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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)


It's hard to square the fiscal circle of reality with the PQ's vows Add to ...

Target No. 1 for the new secessionist government in Quebec will be the wholesale transfer of power and money (presumably) over culture and communications from Ottawa.

This demand, hardly a new one, will be presented first to the National Assembly in the hope that all parties there will support it, followed by its all-or-nothing presentation to Ottawa. A federal refusal will be portrayed as a humiliation for Quebec, a threat to the French language and culture, an example of “centralizing” federalism and further proof (if more were needed) of the Harper government’s insensitivity.

Assume for a moment that the Harper government were inclined to play this game of slice and dice. Another part of the game would be to render to Quebec its share of the money spent in these areas, in which case Quebec would be in for a nasty surprise, as many Quebec artists know.

In one cultural agency after another, the share of money going to Quebeckers and Quebec institutions exceeds their share of the national population, for the defensible reason that the French language is minoritarian in Canada and North America and, therefore, needs more public assistance than the vastly majoritarian one, English.

From CBC/Radio-Canada to the Canada Council and everything in between, this financial fact has been understood, although not much commented on, by those who dole out the money and by at least some of those who receive it. So it would come as a great shock to the Quebec government and to artists in the province if, for example, Ottawa turned over the Canada Council’s programs for Quebec but gave up only 23 per cent of the budget, the province’s approximate share of the national population.

Pesky facts, however, have seldom slowed down the secessionists who will now run Quebec until their minority in the National Assembly exposes them to defeat. Meantime, they have to govern – which means squaring the fiscal circle of reality with the party’s electoral promises, and whipping up whatever trouble can be found with the federal government. This should place the Parti Québécois in a tenable position, given the paucity of Harper Conservatives who can speak Quebec French and the priorities of the government that rub so many Quebeckers the wrong way.

To wit, the best Prime Minister Stephen Harper could come up with in the aftermath of the secessionists’ victory was a ceremony in Quebec, replete with people in early 19th-century British army uniforms, recalling some battle from the War of 1812 that few Quebeckers (and other Canadians, for that matter) have ever heard about and fewer still care about. The disconnect between the province and Conservative thinking is cavernous, as the PQ understands.

While the PQ settles in to govern and cause trouble, the Liberals are in the early stages of figuring out the rules for their leadership race and who should replace Jean Charest. Various putative candidates are pawing the ground, but the one to watch is someone who left politics two elections ago, Philippe Couillard.

If you had a Quebec piastre, you should put it on the former health minister in the Charest government who, if Mr. Charest had left two years before his defeat, would likely have won the leadership and carried the province. Mr. Couillard, a physician, is already being pressed from all sides to re-enter politics, being a person of natural charm, pragmatism and political smarts.

The knock against him is that, as a minister and a frequent commentator on health care after politics, he favoured an expansion of private delivery of public services, assuming the private deliverer was regulated and monitored. This sensible direction, however, infuriates public-sector unions and other self-appointed guardians of the purity of old-style medicare.

Mr. Couillard will be castigated for his apostasy, but who can plausibly defend the shortage of family physicians in Quebec and the intolerable wait times for too many surgeries? As practitioner and policy-maker, he’s forgotten more about health care than anyone in Quebec politics knows, and maybe in Canadian politics, too.

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