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Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech in Montreal on March 16, 2012. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech in Montreal on March 16, 2012. (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa’s approach to a PQ Quebec? More stick than carrot Add to ...

There were three reasons that a plethora of cabinet ministers fanned out across Canada Wednesday reannouncing federal spending that had already been promised.

The first was to emphasize that it was business as usual in the Harper government, despite the Parti Québécois victory Tuesday night.

The second was to send a message to the incoming government in Quebec: that whatever Pauline Marois may be about to demand, the answer is no.

The third was to establish the tone of that message: respectful of the choice Quebeckers had made, but emphatic in the Harper government’s refusal to be drawn into protracted negotiations over new powers for the province.

Christian Paradis, the Industry Minister, made that position clear in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. When asked how the government would respond to Ms. Marois’s demands for new powers over labour, culture, communications and immigration for Quebec, he replied: “If she makes proposals with the goal of sabotaging the federal government, obviously there will be fewer grounds for agreement. But our open federalism approach remains the same.”

Mr. Harper’s office made the same point, though in a more prime-ministerial tone, in a statement summarizing his phone call to congratulate the premier-designate. Mr. Harper, the statement said, had promised to work co-operatively with Ms. Marois on “common objectives, so as to respond to Quebeckers’ and Canadians’ concerns and foster continued stability, economic growth and job creation.”

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley was the first to get specific. She dismissed Ms. Marois’s demand that Ottawa hand responsibility for the Employment Insurance program over to Quebec.

“Employment insurance has been federal a jurisdiction since 1940,” Ms. Finley told the Canadian Press. “It’s a national program to help all regions of the country. But our focus is quite frankly on helping people get back to work.” That notwithstanding, “I’m quite happy to work with Ms. Marois’s government on common goals.”

It was all a careful blend of carrot and stick, but mostly stick. Ottawa planned to focus on the economy; all demands for new powers for Quebec would be rebuffed. But do look us up if you have any proposals of mutual interest.

Fresh evidence emerged for why this strategy is not only essential to placate the Conservative base, but necessary to satisfy the broader public. The pollster Ipsos Reid reported that, when asked whether Ottawa should accommodate the PQ’s demand to hand over Employment Insurance and other programs, eight in 10 Canadians outside Quebec said that Mr. Harper “should reject this demand because these programs are national in scope and best run by the federal government.” Eight. In. Ten.

No federal government could afford to ignore such a message. When Mr. Harper says no, Ms. Marois should realize it’s not a bluff.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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