Ottawa is opening the door to negotiations on a host of issues with the new Parti Québécois government, while warning that there is no appetite for talk of new powers or money.
In a direct response to the sovereignty-boosting agenda of the newly sworn-in PQ government, the Harper government's Quebec lieutenant, Christian Paradis, says he is open to dialogue on a series of issues – but not all. If Parti Québécois ministers start clamouring for additional powers and cash, he said, they will end up talking to themselves.
"If they want to play that game, they can go ahead, but there will be an empty chair on the federal side," said Mr. Paradis, who is the minister of industry and the minister of state for agriculture in the Harper government.
The government is striving to offer a nuanced response to the election earlier this month of a new PQ government, which was officially formed on Wednesday.
But it appears unconcerned by threats that any refusal to devolve more powers to Quebec will boost the province's sovereigntist movement.
In an interview, Mr. Paradis mixed in hints of openness and cordiality in his responses as he tried to steer the relationship with the PQ government toward administrative deals that would provide a boost to the economy or offer savings to both sides. There have already been informal discussions between Conservative and their PQ counterparts, and Mr. Paradis plans on reaching out to his counterpart on agriculture to start exploring joint issues.
The Conservatives' priority at this point is to avoid cultivating fights with the Quebec government of Pauline Marois, which could further hurt their party's low standing in Quebec. The Conservatives have only five seats in Quebec, and face constant accusations from the federal NDP that they have turned their backs on the province.
The Harper government will deal with the PQ exactly as it would with a federalist government formed by the Liberal Party of Quebec or the Coalition Avenir Québec, Mr. Paradis said.
"We want to be pragmatic and act in good faith," he said. "Sovereignty and everything that is related to the Constitution, frankly, there is no appetite for that. People want to talk to us about jobs and the economy."
Pointing to his government's openness to new deals with Quebec, Mr. Paradis spoke of the recent harmonization of federal and provincial sales taxes, and plans to explore the Old Harry oil and gas prospect in the Gulf of St-Lawrence.
"Clearly, we don't have a mandate to dismantle the federation and that is not what we intend to do," Mr. Paradis said. "However, that doesn't preclude administrative deals, for example, to optimize the management of public funds on both sides."
Mr. Paradis stayed clear of the controversial decision this week to remove the Maple Leaf during the swearing-in at the National Assembly, to avoid fuelling unnecessary discord.
"As a government, we believe in our institutions and our symbols, and that includes the Canadian flag. Still, we have to avoid the trap of falling back into flag flaps. No one comes out a winner on that front," Mr. Paradis said.
Still, the Conservatives don't want to engage in an explosive rebalancing of powers between Ottawa and the provinces, which could prove highly unpopular in the rest of Canada. This explains the Harper government's upfront rejection of anything that involves reshaping the Constitution.
"That is the line that I want to draw," Mr. Paradis said.
The Parti Québécois had made it clear during the election that it feels it is in a win-win position in regards to jurisdictional battles: Either it succeeds in forcing Ottawa's hand and gets new powers, or it fails and gets new arguments in favour of sovereignty.
Ms. Marois introduced her new cabinet on Wednesday, tasking her minister of intergovernmental affairs, Alexandre Cloutier, to go to Ottawa to "win new powers."
In particular, Mr. Cloutier wants full control over the employment insurance program, as well as full jurisdiction and funding over cultural and communications policies.
"Not only do we want more powers, but we also want to occupy every jurisdiction where we can now do so under the present situation. When it will come to shared jurisdictions [such as the environment] we will occupy the maximum jurisdiction that we can," he said.
Mr. Cloutier has heard the signals from Ottawa, but he isn't backing down from the upcoming confrontation.
"We will act quickly," he said.