The New Answer to Separatism

Yesterday, Paul Wells wrote a column about Stephen Harper’s recent penchant for taking credit for the decline of separatism. This column, judging by Wells’ mentions on Twitter, appears to have annoyed more than a few Liberals. As a Liberal myself, though neither senior nor anonymous, I would like to extend a Liberal olive branch towards Wells. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the article was excellent and exactly the kind of piece we should want to see more of in the public discourse. On top of being a worthwhile piece in its own right, the piece is also valuable from a Liberal perspective for its analysis of Quebec.

Wells mentions explicitly and more than once that Harper taking credit for separatism’s decline is a counter-intuitive assertion. It is not a controversial statement to suggest that Canadian political media is rather consensus-driven, with each journalist either trying to define themselves as the prophet of the current consensus (say Peter Newman on the death of the Liberal Party), in opposition to the consensus (Ezra Levant’s ridiculous “media party” attacks), or, somehow, both (John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker in The Big Shift). Wells’ thought experiment doesn’t fit neatly into any of these categories and I’m willing to give full credit to Wells for what I can only assume is a glibly self-conscious nod to Ibbitson and Bricker when he mentions their pet term, the “Laurentian elite”. I read this less as an endorsement of their nonsensical phrase and more as a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of how out of place his analysis is in our current political conversation. There is very little room for serious political thinking for its own sake. That Wells has done just that is certainly laudable.

Beyond Wells’ piece as an interesting contribution to a wonky discussion, the piece is also an interesting attack on a self-perceived Liberal strength. Personally, I was impressed by Justin Trudeau for helping out in the Quebec election, not simply because working against a separatist party is a good in itself (from a national unity perspective), but because it was easy to argue that he was working against his own electoral self-interest. Liberals are perceived as strong on the national unity front and Trudeau working against the separatist parties takes away that electoral boogeyman. Rather than being able to tell the ROC that Trudeau would be the only one able to keep the country together, the Liberals now have to win on their own merits. Wells’ piece challenges that logic in two ways – first, whether, they deserve that reputation, and second, whether the Liberals would be wise to do so. On the first point, I have no intention of minimizing the contribution to our federation made by our Liberal forbearers, but I think the second point is a much more interesting debate.

Going into the next federal election, the Liberals will need to prove that they are the natural alternative to Stephen Harper’s governing Conservatives. While a big part of that will involve working against the Conservatives, the age old wisdom is that governments defeat themselves. If that logic holds, the Liberals big task, beyond working against the Conservatives, will be jockeying for position with the NDP. There is an argument to be made that the NDP is the most separatist federal party ever – they oppose the Clarity Act, they have committed to reopen the Constitution (since that is what would be required to get rid of the Senate), they have committed to get Quebec’s signature on the Constitution if it’s ever opened, and, worst of all, they could form government (unlike the Bloc!). The NDP, with a little analysis, could be presented as a walking Constitutional crisis. The question becomes whether that is an argument worth making.

Harper’s approach to separatism has been akin to The Simpsons’ when the ads came to life in The Treehouse of Horrors: just don’t look. Whether or not you credit Harper for the decline of separatism at both levels, Wells’ point is valid – it looks like it’s working. Only history will show whether Harper has been successful in this regard, but Quebec may now be a province that makes its demands like any other – by voting for its MPs rather than on sovereignty. Liberals have learned a lot in the past eight years about what parts of our party need to be left in the 80s and 90s, and our tactics regarding separatism may well be one of them. We should be very careful to write off Wells’ analysis, lest we open a wound that is finally beginning to heal.

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