National Column: Trudeau’s bond with Ontario on fragile ground if Ford wins

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by Chantal Hebert

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had it in his power to save just one of the two Central Canada allies whose re-election is less than certain this year, which of Quebec’s Philippe Couillard or Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne would he pick?

Up until this election year the answer would have been a no-brainer and not just for a Liberal federal government.

From Ottawa’s perspective, the defeat of a federalist government in Quebec was considered a bigger national concern than any regime change in Ontario for the better part of four decades. Indeed, Trudeau’s predecessors were often expected to go the extra mile to try to prevent the advent of a sovereigntist government in Quebec.

As recently as four years ago, then-prime minister Stephen Harper implored his opposition rivals and the other premiers to avoid providing Pauline Marois’s PQ minority government with referendum and re-election ammunition.

Things are strikingly different this year.

The Parti Quebecois is running in third place. Its referendum plans are on the backburner until at least 2022. With support for sovereignty in decline, the party is struggling to keep a central place on the political landscape. Whatever the result of the Quebec election, it will not herald a resumption of the unity wars.

But even the improbable prospect of a PQ resurrection in the Quebec fall vote has less cause to inspire trepidation in the Liberal backrooms of Parliament Hill than the possible advent of a majority Tory government in Ontario in June.

By and large, Trudeau’s Liberals wish Couillard well. By comparison to his predecessors, he has been a remarkably easygoing partner for the federal government.

But when all is said and done, Trudeau does not really have a dog in the Quebec Liberal battle against the currently leading Coalition Avenir Quebec party.

CAQ Leader Francois Legault renounced sovereignty on the way to founding his party. He cannot win the fall election without convincing federalist voters his conversion is real. He is not about to sow doubts in their minds by turning the Quebec campaign into a battle-by-proxy against a popular federal government.

Satisfaction with Trudeau in his home province remains high. His Liberals enjoy a double-digit lead on the competition in Quebec voting intentions. That is not true in the other three more populous provinces.

Trudeau’s team has little or no connection to Legault’s nor has there so far been a flood of bad blood between them.

The two have a profound disagreement on the accommodation of religious minorities. But then that is one issue on which the Quebec and federal Liberals also disagree. In the end, the courts will probably sort out the issue. On the morning after a CAQ victory, the two governments would be writing on a relatively blank page.

Compare that with Ontario, a province where the Trudeau magic seems to be wearing off this spring.

Ontario is ground zero of the current decline in federal Liberal fortunes. Widespread voter fatigue with Kathleen Wynneís Liberals may be contaminating the federal voting intention numbers. But the Ontario premier has been unpopular for a long time and that did not until now affect Trudeauís standing in the province. On that basis, the alternative – i.e., that the prime ministerís performance is compounding Wynne’s troubles – is just as plausible.

In contrast with Legault, Ontario Tory leader Doug Ford is more than happy to campaign as the anti-Trudeau.

A Tory victory in June would not just put the two governments on a collision course on carbon pricing and climate change. With Ford in the premier’s office, Trudeau would probably have no Ontario buy-in for his plan to create a national pharmacare program or for his signature promise of a different relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

And then from the PMO on down to the Liberal ministerial suites, Queenís Park veterans populate Trudeauís government backrooms. Former provincial health minister Eric Hoskins, who was tasked last month with drawing a roadmap for the federal pharmacare plan, is only the latest high-profile import from the Ontario team.

A Couillard defeat next fall would force Trudeau to deal with a less familiar and more conservative Quebec partner. But a Tory victory in Ontario in June would leave most of the bridges between the current federal government and those in charge of Canadaís largest province in ruins.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs columnist.
Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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