Thursday, April 24, 2003

Where Canadian Politics Happens: Quebec and Calgary

While Saddam Hussein’s regime was falling in Iraq, Canada too was undergoing a shift in its political landscape. In eastern Canada, the Parti Quebecois went down to defeat after two terms in office. Meanwhile in western Canada, the country’s wealthiest province, Alberta, was engaging in a little political shake up of its own.

To my mind, Quebec and Alberta are probably the most interesting provinces in Canada, at least in terms of political activity. So let’s deal with Quebec today. The April 14 election saw the Liberals, headed by former federal Conservative cabinet minister and party leader Jean Charest, defeat the governing Parti Quebecois. Perhaps the most striking thing about this result was that the Liberals made few gains as far as percentage of the vote went – they increased their standing by less than 2% of the overall vote from their previous showing. The Parti Quebecois on the other hand fell about 11% placing it well behind the Liberals. It appears that most of this lost support went to the third place Action Democratique which polled 18% of the vote though this translated into only 4 seats in Quebec’s 125 seat National Assembly (yes, even though it is a provincial legislature, Quebec uses the term “national” which is appropriate since Quebec is more nationalist than Canada itself).

The big news from this election was that the federalists are back in power in Quebec, which in itself is quite significant, but as I’ve noted, the Liberals weren’t witness to a substantial increase in their percentage of the vote. And yet, the Liberals won a significant majority of the seats in the Assembly: 76 of 125. Oddly enough, the Liberals actually garnered the most votes in Quebec’s previous election, but because of Quebec demographics and the Westminster Parliamentary system of first-past-the-poll, the Liberals must always win at least 5% more of the popular vote than the PQ in order to win a real majority in seats.

Now I mention this because this electoral oddity is the very thing that allowed the Parti Quebecois to form majority governments even without a majority of the vote. It is also worth pointing out that this particular system is English in origin, rather than French. And, it is further worth noting that this representative form of government – established under the auspices of the English – has ensured that Quebec’s form of government is older than France’s own Fifth Republic. Indeed, it dates to a time before many of France’s accumulated republics, empires and constitutional monarchies. The British parliamentary system may at times seem cumbersome, but it does have certain stabilizing effects often lacking on the European continent.

But as I said, the immediate impact on Canadian federalism was the big story of the moment. In this regard, things may get quite interesting in Canada. My first reason for making this claim is that while Jean Charest is a federalist and a provincial Liberal, he was, as mentioned above, a federal politician and a member of the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. As such, his views on provincial rights and responsibilities are not exactly those of his federal Liberal cousins in the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. We can see this in the hot-button issue of medical care which played an especially high-profile role in Charest’s election campaign.

At this point we need to realize that Canada’s much bragged about government-funded medical system is under stress. While I was in Canada, I learned just how bad the situation had become in my own province of Alberta. Twice I came across cases in my parents’ town in which people in need of hip replacement surgery were denied the procedure. The first was an elderly gentleman. He had been waiting well over two years for surgery only because his surgeon was limited in the number of surgeries he could perform over a given period due to the expense. The authority imposing these limits was the provincial government. I should remind my readers that this is the government presiding over the wealthiest province in Canada – a point I’ll come to later. The second case was a younger woman in her thirties, and her situation was even more unfortunate. While her doctor had confirmed the need for hip surgery, government regulations once again prevented it for the simple reason that she was too young. It appears that under a certain age, the provincial health department has decided that no surgeries would be performed regardless of the medical diagnosis. The woman’s only option: head to the US for the operation.

I have to admit that I’m not an expert in this field so my observations are just that, my observations. However, it does appear that Canada’s medical system is having some problems. But what does this have to do with the Quebec election? The answer is that in Canada, the provincial governments administer the health care system, but it is the federal government that is primarily responsible for collecting the taxes that fund the system. The federal government sets the regulations and then it transfers the money to the provincial governments for spending, which would mean that the federal government continues to wield a substantial degree of influence. It is this monetary influence that Jean Charest, along with the other provincial premiers, may soon challenge in a major way.

One of the charges recently made by provincial leaders is that the great success the federal Liberals have had in balancing Canada’s federal budget comes precisely at the expense of money given to the provinces. Thus, it is the provinces that have to deal with the effects of federal cuts, rather than the federal government itself. Increasingly, these same provincial leaders are throwing around the idea that the provinces, not the federal government, should be responsible for collecting taxes destined for spending in health care. Needless to say, the political implications are enormous as the provinces may now be preparing to push the federal government aside in the tax game.

Once again, the intricacies of health funding aren’t my specialty, but from a political point of view, the notion that the provinces would increasingly take responsibility for federal obligations seems to demonstrate how close Canada is coming to losing any real sense of its national identity. It is one of the odd paradoxes of Canadian politics that a federalist in Quebec may achieve as much for de facto Quebec independence as a separatist. And, it isn’t only Jean Charest in Quebec. With his election, all four of Canada’s largest provinces (Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta) have conservative governments. (And yet again I have to clarify this. In fact, only Ontario and Alberta have governments headed by the Conservative Party. In British Columbia, as in Quebec, the provincial government is Liberal, but also as in Quebec, the Liberal Party is more or less the equivalent of the Conservative Party in other provinces.)

Of course, the federal Liberal government has other ideas about these matters. Certainly it is pleased to see the PQ defeated and the provincial Liberals in power in Quebec. They may think the Quebec separatist threat is on the back burner for now and this may be true, though I wouldn’t necessarily count out the separatists yet – they have an amazing ability to come back when you least expect it. But just as one threat ends, another seems to present itself in the form of Alberta: part two of my assessment of Canadian politics coming this weekend.

And next week I’ll look at things here in Europe and France.

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