Same old Liberal Drivel

Pierre S. Pettigrew, The New Politics of Confidence, Stoddart, 1999, $29.95.

Review by Howard Cukoff

Pierre Pettigrew was the beneficiary of a fortuitous cabinet shuffle: he left poor Jane Stewart holding the bag in the billion dollar boondoggle (or was it three billion?) at the Human Resources Department (HRDC). Pettigrew transferred to the International Trade portfolio – he was our representative at the WTO conference in Seattle – a step up the ladder. Any Prime Ministerial ambitions he may have are presumably still intact. It doesn’t do to show too much talent in the Liberal party, after all. Prime Minister ChrĂ©tien is a bit touchy about that... how else can you explain the career of Sheila Copps? If only we had voted for Kim Campbell!

Pettigrew has published a book which amounts to an attempt to present the federalist case on the ‘national unity’ question, the substance of which is in the last chapter. The reader has this reviewer’s permission to skip the rest without feeling guilty about it. The text is a reworked collection of speeches and papers stemming from the period before Pettigrew joined the government. The author was a management consultant, and has written the book in the tedious and barely readable style of that profession. The style fits the bill, however, in a book about national unity, a problem which the federal government hopes to ‘manage’ out of existence since it has no intention of solving it. The strategy of evasion, inertia, and occasional bully tactics has kept the country together so far, it is true.

Canada is a big player in the world, it is a member of many international organizations, including the U.N. Security Council several times, it has far-ranging trade pacts and the prospect of further advances, and it has the respect of the international community (does Yugoslavia still respect us?). So runs Pettigrew’s argument, and he is undoubtedly right that an independent Quebec would face a decline of prestige and presence in our (forgive me) global economy. Quebec would lose its geographical bridge to the once and future burgeoning Pacific Rim. Pettigrew is also correct to point out an often-overlooked matter. Quebec carries on an extensive interprovincial trade which would almost certainly be disrupted in the wake of secession. In economic terms, the sovereigntist project would hardly be a cake walk, despite the assurances to the contrary of Lucien Bouchard, whose pitch in the last referendum campaign was that sovereignty would be so easy to achieve that no one would notice it had been.

Pettigrew holds that the federal system is flexible and adaptive, qualities which effectively position the country to compete in contemporary market conditions. Flexibility is enhanced by the constant squabbling between federal and provincial jurisdictions, since the levels of government compete to provide better services and a better economic climate. These advantages would be lost in the centralized model of government an independent Quebec would follow. As examples, Pettigrew mentions the bureaucratic bungling in Quebec’s manpower training department, which the province wrested from federal control a few years ago, and the short shrift municipalities get in Quebec. Pettigrew maintains that the Quebec government is inept at regional development and has been unable to arrest the decades-long decline of the city of Montreal.

As Pettigrew sees it, the sovereigntist movement is parochial and out-of-step with economic reality. Nationalism is about much more than economics, needless to say. The French fact in Canada has entered a demographic crisis. The proportion of francophones in the country is declining, and political power (in a democracy, at least) follows the demographic trend. The insecurity of francophones both in Quebec and in the Rest of Canada (where the cultural assimilation of francophone communities is a critical danger) – of which the sovereigntist movement is one expression – is real, the future of the French language and culture is not assured. As long as Canada’s constitutional arrangement is not adjusted to meet the problem – it does not even presently recognize that there is a problem – Pettigrew’s brand of economic federalism will ring hollow.

Economic flexibility means flexibility in the labour market. Apart from the insecurity francophones experience as a national minority in Canada and as a nation in Quebec, the working class section of the nationality shares the growing economic insecurity of Canadian workers – and not only workers. Nationalism in Quebec won’t go away, the sovereigntist movement in Quebec is far from extinct, as a recent headline in the National Post stupidly claimed. Wasn’t it pronounced dead a few months before the last referendum campaign? The social tension which comes with the new economic reality combined with the apparent improbability of constitutional reform – not much flexibility there – will continue to feed separatist tendencies. Is the ‘everyone in his own back yard’ philosophy of the Reform party (rather, the former Reform party) really so different from that of the PĂ©quistes? Reform leader Preston Manning1 briefly contemplated a political alliance with the sovereigntists to further his goal of dismantling the power of the federal government. Pettigrew’s New Politics of Confidence are a hope or a prayer that Liberals will somehow muddle through, as they always have. One hopes that the consultant gave his corporate clients better advice.


1 – Editor's Note: Preston Manning has now been replaced as leader of the Canadian Alliance [a.k.a. the Reform Party] by Stockwell Day, the former treasurer under the Alberta Tory regime of Ralph Klein. Interestingly, Day and the new Alliance leadership have also been courting Quebec sovereigntists of late.

Spark! #13-14, pp. 69-70