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Hébert: Ottawa’s silence over Quebec election a welcome change from past campaigns

Harper and Charest

REUTERS FILE PHOTO Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Quebec Premier Jean Charest shake hands in this file photo from May 2006. Star columnist Chantal Hebert writes that Ottawa’s silence about the ongoing Quebec election is a welcome change from previous provincial elections.

MONTREAL—The silence that has fallen over Parliament Hill concerning Quebec since the Sept. 4 provincial election was called is both welcome and somewhat misleading.

It is welcome because for once, none of the federal parties is casting next week’s vote as a test of Canada’s unity.

It was not so long ago that every Quebec election was framed as a fight for the preservation of the federation — an approach that served little purpose except to needlessly raise the volume of the Quebec-Canada conversation to a deafening level.

This time, the Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats have wisely avoided spinning the provincial election into a major unity threat.

But non-interference in the Quebec campaign should not be mistaken for collective federal indifference.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not need to be living in fear of a referendum showdown while Quebecers decide who will govern the province. And he is not the only federal politician to have a stake in the outcome. At the end of the day, the NDP has an even bigger dog in this fight.

As prime minister, Harper will primarily have to deal with the policy implications of election outcome.

A return to power of the Parti Québécois would amount to yet another federal-provincial complication for the Conservatives. But it would be a leap to describe a possible Pauline Marois victory as a dramatic game-changer.

There has not been any love lost between Quebec and the Harper government for a while and that won’t change regardless of next week’s outcome.

From a strictly partisan perspective, Harper has more to lose by landing on the wrong side of NDP-friendly British Columbia or by picking a fight with the red Tories in power in Alberta these days than by getting the cold shoulder from a Quebec government of any stripe.

The same is not true of Thomas Mulcair.

For the NDP, a PQ defeat next week would make life significantly easier.

That’s because in the absence of a sovereignist ally in power in Quebec, it would be a lot harder for the Bloc Québécois to make a comeback at the expense of the New Democrats in the next federal election.

If Bloc leader Daniel Paillé is to be taken at his word, a Liberal or Coalition Avenir Québec victory next week would defeat the very purpose of restoring the federal sovereignist party to its former parliamentary glory.

In his first statement as leader last fall, Paillé stipulated that on his watch the so-called defense of Quebec’s interests on the federal front would take a distant second place to the pursuit of sovereignty.

If Marois is defeated next week, it remains to be seen whether Paillé will even run for a federal seat. As the Bloc’s public subsidies fade out, so too could the party.

As the federal Liberals head into another leadership season, the Quebec result could also change the channel of their party’s conversation

Some Liberal strategists see the advent of a PQ government as a winning condition for their beleaguered party — especially if Justin Trudeau becomes leader.

But that kind of thinking leads to little more than a trip down memory lane.

Yes, the unity issue used to be the forte of the federal Liberals but here the emphasis has to be on the past tense.

In the days of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, the party commanded the strongest Quebec federalist organization of any federal party.

That is no longer the case. Moreover, by virtue of his position as official opposition leader and his past record in the referendum trenches, Mulcair has a greater claim to the title of lead Quebec federal champion than any leadership candidate the Liberals might throw his way.

If (and when) Trudeau runs for the Liberal leadership, the last thing he will need would be to be cast as Captain Canada.

That inflated title is ill-suited to the raft-size party he would vie to steer and it distracts from the fact that — regardless of next week’s result in Quebec — the Liberals have a greater and more urgent need of a saviour than the country.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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