I think this is a first:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper will come face-to-face this week with Pauline Marois for the first time since she was elected premier of Quebec, but instead of a clashing of swords there might be a meeting of the minds.
The two leaders will both be travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the Francophonie Summit, and so far their governments seem to agree on what they hope to accomplish — and are speaking pleasantly about each other to boot.
OK. Does anyone else find it "interesting" that the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Quebec are having their first date in the Congo? This is not promising. Political leaders can choose their cabinets but they cannot choose their rivals. An independently minded backbencher with a loose tongue - Hey there Rob Anders! - can find himself banished to the outer reaches of hell. In a worst case scenario they can find themselves transformed into John Nunziata, who was damned by Papa Jean for questioning the authority of the Liberal Sun King.
Prime Ministerial wrath is limited in dealing with provincial premiers. While John A toyed with the idea of dismissing recalcitrant premiers in the early days of the Dominion, one of the reasons that Lieutenant-Governors are appointed by Ottawa, such options are no longer politically feasible. A modern PM must grin and bear as premiers misbehave and harangue the federal government. Like an elementary school teacher denied the ability to either scold or spank.
When new premiers are elected, either by their party or the voters, the PMO is obliged to make the usual noises. They respect the will of the people, look forward to building a constructive relationship and a stronger and more united country. That last bit tends to get dropped when dealing with separatist pols, but the bland generalities are meant to hid the blunt reality. We're stuck with this bastard / bitch for the foreseeable future.
On election night last month the PMO was careful to signal that Marois would have limited room to maneuver in Ottawa:
"We don't believe Quebecers want to reopen the old constitutional quarrels of the past," Harper said. "Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and good economic management. We believe economic issues and jobs are also the priority of Quebecers. In that sense, we will continue working with the government of Quebec on those common objectives."
Translated into English: "Don't even think about it sister."
While it's not the bitch slap that the federal Tories would prefer to deliver, it's about as close as they can get and still remain within the realm of intergovernmental etiquette. Marois has the most narrow of electoral mandates and is likely to be dragged back to the polls in eighteen months time or so. The most logical course is to smile, make a few minor concessions and let the Quebec Liberal Party re-orient itself. The one thing the PM must not do is provoke the Pequistes.
The very last thing any savvy politician wants to do is give Pauline Marois ammunition. I suspect that any arts funding still going to Quebec is likely to remain untouchable in the years ahead. Recalling the backlash in the province over some minor cuts in 2008, the simplest thing is to let the slush money continue to flow. Sure, quite a lot of my tax dollars and yours are flowing into the bank accounts of mafia dons, and even less reputably Quebec MNAs, but the the alternatives are worse. A credible threat of another referendum. Even as a bluff it would waste enormous amounts of time and money.
Let's say you're an experienced operator like Stephen Harper or Bob Rae. You're going to keep quiet and let Pauline continue yelling at her own shadow. If good fortune holds the Quebec Premier will have a complete meltdown like Christy Clark and start calling for a tax on eighteen wheelers going from Ontario to the Maritimes. At that point you just sit back and wait for the voters of La Belle Province to retire their nutty premier back to her chateaux.
Let's say you're not an experienced operator. Let's say you're a histrionic buffoon with a famous last name and shiny pony hair. To make things worse you're also running for the leadership of the centralizing Liberal Party. Since everyone thinks you're so much of a lightweight you could be used as building material for a Cessna, the idea will enter your pretty head to say something substantive. The last time the Son and Heir did this it came across as if he was supporting Quebec independence. The subsequent back tracking created a video that seemed custom tailor to the needs of editors at the Sun News Network.
That was a small gaffe. Leadership campaigns have a way of generating big gaffes on a fairly regular basis. So here are the elements in play 1) A rickety separatist government in Quebec City desperate to prove its bona fides 2) A rickety federal leadership candidate desperate to prove his bona fides 3) A well entrenched federal Conservative government that is slowly driving the Canadian Left nutty with desperation. What will be the likely end result?
Justin doing something hilariously stupid and remarkably provocative toward the Pequistes.
Then the adults are going to have to clean up the mess.
Stay tuned to this channel.