Stephane Dion on Federalism
Dion's refusal to cave in on the fiscal imbalance issue is certainly one of the areas where he differs from a few of his competitors so I asked him to elaborate a bit on the press release he sent out claiming that Rae and Ignatieff's talk about the fiscal imbalance was helping the separatists.
He started by taking a few shots at Harper for backing down on his fiscal imbalance promise and points out that the budget discussion paper implied that there wasn't a fiscal imbalance if you read between the lines. He feels that when Harper doesn't give out the billions of dollars the separatists expect, Duceppe and Boisclair will be able to say that Ottawa has yet again betrayed Quebec and hasn't solved the problem.
With respect to his comments about Bob and Michael, he smiles and calls it "a friendly warning". Because the term "fiscal imbalance" means something different in every province, it's important to be careful when you use such a politically charged word. For the separatists, the words are a trap they use as an argument that Canada doesn't work and Dion feels that claiming the fiscal imbalance exists without defining it is falling into that trap. By stating the imbalance exists without offering a definition or a cure, you're giving them an opening to claim whatever you do has been a failure.
Dion goes on to say that he's more disappointed in Rae because "he should know better" and "understand the trap" (read into that what you will). Stephane feels that even if Rae has ideas for things like pharmacare to fix the problem, that Quebecers do not know what his ideas are and this will inevitably lead to problems. His main beef appears to be with those who offer to fix the imbalance without explaining how it will be fixed.
The most interesting argument Dion raises is of the political fall out. He claims (and I agree) that the Liberal Party would have zero credibility in Quebec if they tried to fight an election promising to eradicate the fiscal imbalance: "people will say 'you put us into this mess for 12 years and now you want to fix it?'" He feels a flip-flop like this would be seen as just copying Harper and wouldn't win us any votes in Quebec.
When I ask him what Ignatieff and Rae should say on the topic, he replies: "They should tell Gilles Duceppe that it's irrational to use a large surplus as a reason to separate from a country." There's a twinge of arrogance in Dion's voice for the entire discussion, and I don't necessarily say that as a bad thing.
Dion has a reputation as a strong central government guy but, as Paul Wells showed in his killing of the "Draft Dion" blog, Dion has often advocated decentralization and has shied away from federal intrusion into provincial jurisdictions. So I decide to ask Dion about the role of the federal government in provincial jurisdictions (I have his specific answers regarding health care and education in the part 3 "quick answers").
He steals a line from Gilles Duceppe, saying we don't need "Ottawa knows best" and that the federal government should stay away from provincial jurisdictions. According to Dion, there's still a lot to do in federal fields and that's where the focus should be. Aboriginals, infrastructure, National Parks, the 0.7% foreign aid target, the pension plan, dealing with our aging population, climate change - these are all things in the federal jurisdiction which Dion feels we need to spend money on. He agrees that money can be spent on things like health care and education, but is reluctant to put strings on it.
Given this reputation for taking a hard line with the provinces, I decide to ask him about the special status Quebec got in Martin's Health Accord (to fix health care for a generation yada yada).
Dion skates around the asymmetrical federalism question, saying that Quebec was ahead of the other provinces with their plan to set benchmarks so he doesn't see it as a huge problem. "So long as Quebec is doing the same, it's OK. It isn't two different worlds."
Finally, I decide to hit him with the "is Quebec a Nation" question. Stephane re-emphasizes what he's said before: that Quebec is a nation in the sociological definition of the word. Quebecers are a group of people with a collective identity and that makes them a nation.
He is quick to point out that it would be a disaster to put this into the constitution "as some have suggested". At that point, it would becomes necessary to determine which other people in Canada (and Quebec for that matter) are nations and that's bound to leave a lot of groups upset.
He also doesn't see any practical benefit of putting it into the constitution if you somehow could reach consensus on the number of nations in Canada. If it won't change anything, it's more hassle than it's worth. If it gives one group of Canadians special status or extra powers, it would be an incredibly "audacious" move that contradicts the principle of equality among Canadians.
He doesn't name names, but for anyone advocating constitutional change, Stephane says that "I hope he knows what's the next step".
"But you yourself supported Meech Lake, which would have given many special powers to Quebec." I ask. "How would this be any different?"
Dion replies that, yes, he was for Meech and Charlottetown. However, his interpretation of the distinct society clause in them was that it simply meant judges should take the distinct nature of Quebec into account when reaching decisions, which he feels they do. He re-emphasized that another round of constitutional talks would be a mistake since it's bound to leave someone disappointed and convinced that Canada doesn't work.
I ask him if he's against any constitutional changes under any circumstances.
He replies that he'd only consider it if it's done on a case-by-case basis. He doesn't want to have "mega-constitutional talks" where everyone puts their demands forward.
"Can you imagine if the United States ripped up their constitution and tried to re-write it, keeping everyone happy?" He feels, it would just be asking for trouble.