Sunday, April 04, 2010

Breaking the silence

There have been plenty of columns this week questioning the lack of much strong federal response to the Charest Libs' decision to impose user fees on Quebec citizens. But it's worth looking at the issue from an NDP perspective in particular to see why there's a massive opportunity available if the party takes a stand.

To start with, I'll note that I don't see the Libs' political calculations as favouring much action. Much as some within the party like to pretend to own the health-care issue, the primary point of concern for the Libs in developing a response figures to be the desire to be able to put Charest's political machine to use. And considering that the Libs preferred doing nothing to taking action in response to the last controversial step in Quebec health care even when that meant the fall of their last government, there's hardly a lot of reason to think they'd see more reason to take a principled stance now.

That leaves the NDP as the lone party likely to take any stand in favour of strengthening the Canada Health Act. And in addition to being the right stand in principle, such a move also looks to set up a useful contrast for the NDP in its effort to peel progressive support away from the Bloc.

After all, one of the main points of dispute between the two parties is which type of consideration should take precedence where provincial jurisdiction and progressive policy come into conflict. And the NDP hasn't been shy about, for example, painting itself as the anti-nuclear party in Quebec due to the Bloc's position that the federal government shouldn't limit a province's desire to push ahead with development in that area.

From what I can tell, the user fee issue looks to be perhaps the prime example of a policy debate where the two values will come into conflict. Which at worst would allow the NDP to set up a line of clash against the Bloc - and at best offers the prospect that voters in general may be more concerned with access to health care than with which level of government establishes policy on the issue.

Mind you, there might be reason to fear running into public-opinion headwinds if Quebec's provincial politicians were united in favour of the user fees. But that doesn't seem to be the case: in fact, the Parti Quebecois has vowed that the fees would "never see the light of day" - meaning that the NDP would have reason to think that a stance against the fees would actually find at least some receptive ears within the PQ even if the Bloc pushes back.

But what if the Bloc supports the NDP in opposing user fees? Well, if the worst-case scenario is for the NDP to be able to work with a federal ally on a hot-button issue, then that's hardly a bad outcome. And sharing the issue with the Bloc in Quebec wouldn't seem problematic if it allows the NDP to be the leading voice against user fees across the country.

For now, I can only assume that the NDP has preferred not to rock the boat until it sees how the other parties respond. But I'd think both the principle of the issue and the politics involve strongly argue in favour of the NDP taking a lead role in fighting against user fees in Quebec and across Canada - and hopefully we'll see a response to that effect before long.

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