Friday, December 16, 2005

The Quebec Card in Reverse

Brian Lee Crowley is head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. This is a small think thank that has some reputation among people of a neo-conservative bent. Crowley is, in some ways, an odd conservative in that he is entirely an economic conservative. The social elements of conservative -- at least in his public discourse -- don't seem to be front and centre in his thinking. I was surprised, therefore, when Crowley in the latest AIMS newsletter played "the Quebec card" only in reverse. Instead of claiming intolerance to francophones, he argued that federal politics has been dominated by a "bidding war" between the federal and provincial government for the hearts and minds of Quebecers -- a bribe, if you will, to win the allegiance of Quebecers to either stay in Canada or adopt a provincialist identity. This bidding war, he contended, was detracting the feds attention from Atlantic Canada and, in the process, economically hurting the region.

This is an odd position. Crowley provides no evidence that it is true. One might not expect a lot of evidence, because this was a short essay (an op-ed in the Toronto Star), but a little bit might have been nice. In the face of a lack of evidence -- zero, zip, none provided at all, just Crowley's contention that this is the case -- one might be tempted to dismiss the piece completely. Certainly, any student submitting this kind of piece to one of my classes would have received an F. But, let's have a loot at the argument and see how it plays out because there is an important point to be made here. How so? Several points merit consideration.

First, Crowley's lack of evidence is interesting because it seems to suggest that he feels no evidence is needed to illustrate his point: Quebec has a favoured position in the eyes of the federal government and the rest of us -- not living in Quebec -- suffer because of it. One needs to ask: is this so? Crowley's article suggests that Quebec is getting more than its fair share from the feds. Again, this goes unexplained. Fair share of what? What is a fair share? Does he mean federal transfer payments? Does he mean federal direct spending? Does he mean per capita spending? Does he mean total federal spending? He doesn't tell us. The idea of a bidding war makes it seem that money is being showered on Quebec. Perhaps it is. But what money? By whom? For what? What is a fair share? None of these questions are answered. So, in addition to a complete lack of evidence, Crowley leaves virtually every key question that he needs to answer to actually make his case unanswered. Let's be clear: the federal government does not "bid"; no bidding for Quebecers has ever taken place. None. Find me one example of a bidding war. Crowley's examples are federal policies that affect Quebec and other provinces. Crowley does not mention federal direct spending in Ontario. He does not mention the per capita rates of federal transfers to Atlantic Canada. He does not mention support for Saskatchewan and Manitaba or agricultural spending or spending in the north. He does not mention the Atlantic Accord. He does not mention the recent health and day care accords. One is bound to ask "why"? I strongly suspect that the reason he does not mention any of this or answer any of the key questions raised by his piece or provide any evidence is that if he did, it would contract his basic premise.

One might ask "is not the sponsorship scandal a bidding war?" Fair question: the answer is no. No Quebecers aside from a few Liberal bag men and some corrupt ad execs made any money off the programme. The average Quebecer saw not a dime and they are rightly outraged by it. So ... if this is a bidding war, well, the bids offered the average Quebecer are not simply low but, well, zero. Crowley's other examples of the bidding war: employment insurance (only Quebecers I guess use it, no one in Atlantic Canada has ever been on EI), regional economic development (hmmm, I guess no regional economic funds went to any other part of the country), equalization (again, we are left to assume not a cent in equalization ever went to another province), and marketing boards (hmmm ... I thought there was something about a wheat pool out west but I guess that can't be true because the west is not being bid over and the only reason one might have a marketing board is to bribe someone).

Second, let's say that the feds have spent more money than they should have in Quebeec in the interest of national unity. Let's leave aside what "should have means" in order to accept at least part of what Crowley says on faith. OK, is not national unity in our interest? For some reason Crowley thinks it isn't. As a committed federalist and a proud Canadian, I find this argument disturbing. How can national unity not be in the interest of Atlantic Canada? How can it not be in the interest of Canada? Crowley doesn't explain. In fact, like the other key questions he fails to address, he ignores it. National unity -- the integrity of the federal union -- seems to be a matter of scant concern to him. It is not to me and I can't figure out how the collapse of Canada would be in the interest of the people living in Atlantic Canada. It would have been nice if Crowley explained the logic of his argument, rather than ignoring it.

Finally, Crowley makes the classic mistake of those people who take cheap shots at Quebec: he assumes that there are no political parties in Quebec and that one premier because they are a Quebecer is interchangeable with any other because one Quebecers is ,well, basically like the next. He didn't say? Well, sure he did, he just didn't use the words. Every Quebec provincial government "bids" for its population's alliance. The PQ or the Liberals, doesn't matter. I think it does. I think that the fact that we have a federalist premier in Quebec -- and man whose bid was for Canada -- is important. I'm not wiling to say, as Crowley's arugment implies, that separatism -- the destruction of Canada -- is the same as federalism -- the maintenance of Canadian unity. Quebec politics are not about bidding for Quebecers support. They are about schools and budgets and jobs and the environment, just like politics elsewhere. Federalists want to maintain Canadian unity and I support them. Separatists do not, and I argue against them and in favour of Canada. Crowley says "they are all the same."

What is most important about Crowley's piece is that it shows us what is required to bash Quebec: to play the anti-Quebec card, as it were. What is required. To sustain his argument Crowley must: (1) ignore evidence (or, at best don't discuss it), ignore key questions and obfuscate issues (is direct spending as important as transfers, for instance), (3) believe that there is not difference between separatism in Quebec and federalism, and (4) believe that national unity is not in the interests of Canadians. You can see why I would fail this piece if it were a student essay. It is not that Crowley's argument is wrong. I can think a point of view staked out by a student is wrong and still accord an A to a paper that deserves it. This essay would fail because it provides no evidence, ignores key questions, skips over important issues and tells us that black and white are the same colour. If you believe that ... well, I've got a bridge for sale.
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