Winds of change rise on political scene

Quebec’s Pauline Marois and Alberta’s Danielle Smith don’t know each other. Neither is completely fluent in the other’s language. If and when they do meet, there may not be a lot that they can talk about.

Quebec’s Pauline Marois and Alberta’s Danielle Smith don’t know each other. Neither is completely fluent in the other’s language. If and when they do meet, there may not be a lot that they can talk about.

But should they become the next premiers of their respective provinces – a real possibility according to current polls – it seems that they mean to pursue parallel approaches in their dealings with the federal government.

In the absence of the momentum to win a referendum on sovereignty, a Parti Québécois government would fall back on the pursuit of more autonomy for Quebec within the federation.

“We will govern Quebec as sovereignists, by taking over all the responsibilities that the current legal framework allows us to control,” the PQ states on its website.

The goal of more provincial autonomy has been a constant feature of Quebec politics for decades but it has usually been a staple of the agenda of federalist parties, not sovereignist premiers.

In the past, the PQ has always argued that no amount of provincial autonomy could ever be a reasonable substitute for full-fledged independence.

Marois says she still very much believes that. Indeed, the hope of bolstering the sovereignist case is part of her rationale for appropriating the autonomist creed of her federalist counterparts.

Last spring, Marois described the risk of exasperating the rest of Canada with never-ending Quebec demands as a potential winning condition for sovereignty.

But what is missing from the PQ’s strategic calculations is the notion that Alberta – the power base of the current federal government and a key contributor to the financing of the federation – might turn out to be just as aggressive in seeking to maximize its autonomy from the federal government.

In an essay published in the May edition of the Policy Options magazine, Smith lays out how a Wildrose Alliance government would take a page out of the Quebec book to negotiate different power-sharing arrangements with Ottawa.

She writes: “A Wildrose government would examine each provincial program area currently being provided by the federal government and consult with Albertans to develop a plan for how we would take full responsibility for each of them.”

And she adds: “This is what grown-up provinces do – they take responsibility for providing the programs and services to their citizens that they are mandated to provide under the Constitution.”

Over the past decade, Canada’s provincial landscape has been as stable as the federal scene has been in flux.

That may be about to change.

In Quebec and British Columbia, the governments of the Liberal premiers who have anchored the provincial table are increasingly adrift.

And the tectonic plates of Alberta could be on the verge of a historical shift.

The advent of a more autonomist government in Alberta; the return of a sovereignist party to power in Quebec; a resurgence of the populist protest politics that used to make British Columbia the most volatile provincial scene in the country are all on the radar.

At the same time, fundamental federal-provincial arrangements pertaining to medicare and equalization will soon have to be renegotiated; prospects for a return to federal surpluses are distant and those of a return to majority rule in Parliament remain low.

There may be a perfect storm brewing on the federal-provincial horizon and if and when it comes the women waiting in the opposition wings of some of Canada’s major provinces could very much be in the thick of the tempest.

Chantal Hebert writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.