Stephen Harper can periodically show tactical brilliance. Seizing the moment to promote acknowledgement of Quebec nationhood was one example. The brilliance wasn't in the acknowledgement itself but in the way it was manipulated to create something of a fait accompli.
Tactics, however, are no substitute for strategy. Tactics win battles but, unless they're formulated to support a winning strategy, they can actually lose wars and this is Harper's shortcoming.
When I was a kid the corner store sold "grab bags." For five cents (yes, it was that long ago) you got your pick from a tray of small, paper bags. You had to pick first and then find out what was inside that paper bag. Stephen Harper is taking a grab bag approach to the Quebec nation debate. Actually, he's more like the shopkeeper and he's making us pick the grab bag.
Steve's a bully. He likes to push people, forcing them to make decisions without giving them enough time to consider their choices. A brilliant tactic because it keeps your opposition off balance and induces them to do your bidding. I think that's what he's doing this time too.
It's a standard approach in the US Congress. Pass something into law first and then argue about what it means. If the minority don't go along with it, they can be cast as unpatriotic or cowardly. Only after they're in the trap does the majority decide what the legislation they all voted to support will actually mean. That's the essence of right-wing democracy.
Harper, of course, doesn't have a majority but he doesn't need one this time. I doubt that he really cares much whether his motion succeeds in parliament. Either way he gets the political gravy that he's counting on to generate a majority government. It's all form over substance. He's hoping he can make Quebec nationalists believe they've finally met an Anglo PM sympathetic to their aspirations and thereby take Quebec votes away from both the Libs and the Bloc.
Here's my take on what Harper is up to. I have long believed that Stevie's real interests aren't in Canada but in Alberta. I think he understands that his far-right agenda has a short wick on the national stage, that the clock is ticking. He realizes that the Canadian people are much too centrist to be swayed to his policy preferences although they can be nudged that way in the short term. This puts him in a "seize the day" mentality. Get what you can before you get the boot. He's got the helm so he might as well steer the ship his way until the mutiny.
I may sound paranoid but I think the Quebec initiative is a way to achieve Harper's real goal of a fundamental devolution of federal powers to the provinces. Give it to Quebec and how can you refuse to do the same for, say, Alberta or every other province? Stripping Ottawa of its jurisdictions, and associated spending powers, is the ultimate gift to a cash-rich province, soon to be a nation. A profoundly weakened Ottawa would be a blessing to the Oil Patch, especially the tar sands boys.
Harper saw what happened to Meech Lake and the Charlatan Accord. He knows they set a precedent of submitting major constitutional changes to the referendum process. The Quebec gambit may circumvent the referendum process or simply render it irrelevant. That would then clear the way for rapacious provinces to devour the federal roast until they're sated.
There is no Clyde Wells today to put the brakes on this risky business, to demand that we first define what "nation" is going to mean in the context of Quebec. There is no one today in a position to force an open debate on devolution of federal powers. Stephen Harper intends to use his tactics to effectively gag anyone who might be willing to stand up for federalism and the federalist cause.
I doubt very much that Stephen Harper has a national strategy behind this maneuvre. If he has any strategy at all, it's limited to the future of Alberta.