I wrote last week that it would take Canada’s Liberal Party about two months to live down the disclosure by the Gomery inquiry that its Montreal members had siphoned many millions of dollars in government money into the party’s coffers and into their own pockets. I was wrong. It took less than a week.
Three days after the Gomery Report documented the party’s lavish looting of the funds in the government’s “sponsorship program,” a poll showed that the party’s national support had slipped from 38 percent to 31 percent, only a single percentage point over the Conservatives, who had risen to 30 percent. A poll made six days later showed the Liberals back at 35 percent and the Tories down to 28 percent.
In other words, the mere fact that the party is corrupt in Quebec will still not be enough to defeat it in vote-rich Ontario. That’s because the only other feasible option is the Conservatives whom Ontarians regard as “dangerous,” and with good reason. The Conservatives are threatening changes that would imperil the traditional Ontario-Quebec domination of the national government and in various ways fulfill the rising ambitions of the increasingly prosperous West.
Hence, the three opposition parties – the Conservatives, Quebec’s separatist Bloc Quebecois and the socialist New Democrats – spent last week trying to decide whether to force the minority Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin into a Christmas election, or to force one upon him early in the New Year. By the week’s end no decision had been reached, but a Christmas election seemed unlikely.
Meanwhile, something else became evident last week. The election that may really reflect the Gomery Report is not the federal one, but the next provincial election in Quebec, slated for 2007. The Gomery disclosures, as they came forth in the evidence, had the effect of reviving the Quebec separatist movement, whose polled popularity had dropped to the 40 percent level. It’s now back at 50 percent, enough to defeat the Liberal government of Jean Charest and bring on another provincial referendum on Quebec’s separation from Canada.
This portends a certain irony, until now lost on most English Canadians. It would mean that a federal Liberal program, designed to win Quebec’s loyalty to Canada, instead became the factor that re-ignited the movement to take Quebec out of Canada. For the funds that the Quebec Liberals chose to loot were those specifically dedicated to demonstrate that private looting was not what Canada was all about, despite cynical Quebec perceptions to the contrary.
The $250 million sponsorship program was the brainchild of former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien. He set it up after the last Quebec referendum 10 years ago came within one half of 1 percent of taking the province out of Canada.
The money was supposed to offer Ottawa support for cultural, social and athletic causes, almost wholly those in Quebec, all meant to advertise profusely the benefits of being Canadian. But it was set up with so few of the customary safeguards against looting that Auditor-General Sheila Fraser first warned that the danger of looting existed. She was soon providing evidence that what it was advertising profusely was the benefits of being Liberal. By then, however, Jean Chretien was being forced unwilling into retirement by a caucus rebellion led by Paul Martin, whose first move was to appoint the Gomery inquiry.
However, such an exhibition of unbridled graft provided the separatist Parti Quebecois with a monumental showpiece. It effectively smeared the whole federalist case and vindicated their central contention that Quebec’s role in Canada has the sole purpose of keeping Liberals rich. Now a younger generation is reviving separatism, and the Quebec comedian Pierre Falardeau draws shrieks of laughter with his pet monkey, Kiki the Federalist, who will only do tricks if you offer him enough cash.
All of this is significant in the West where another interesting scenario comes into view. If in the oncoming federal election the western-led Conservatives are once again rejected in Ontario – this being the fifth federal election in which a western-led party has been snubbed by the Ontario voter – it will greatly reinforce the sentiment known as “western alienation.” Should Quebec then separate – a real possibility with the separatists polling in the range of 50 percent – in the chaos that follows, the West could effectively push for a radically changed Canada, something that in such a situation, even Ontario might be prepared to buy.