The prime minister became well acquainted with the limitations and uncertainties of not winning an outright majority of seats over two consecutive elections. Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois now faces similar obstacles as she tries to push ahead with a separatist agenda while facing two other parties who want nothing to do with a referendum.
For Harper, it's the best of the worst-case scenarios.
In a written statement Tuesday night, Harper congratulated Marois on her election win — a less-than-convincing minority comprised of just 54 seats, nine short of being able to form a coveted majority government.
But in virtually the same breath, he made it clear the party's failure to capture a majority indicated a lack of support for the PQ's separatist subtext.
"We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past. Our government will remain focused on jobs, economic growth and sound management of the economy," Harper said.
“We believe that economic issues and jobs are also the priorities of the people of Quebec. With this in mind, we will continue to work with the government of Quebec toward our common goals."
Federal ministers and parliamentary secretaries are scheduled to fan out across the country Wednesday to cheerfully announce funding related to youth employment and skills training — business as usual, in other words.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae declared on Twitter: "Quebec voters reject separatist project. This is the key point that must not be lost."
The Conservatives — and the NDP — have kept their powder bone dry during the provincial campaign and there's every sign they will continue to do so.
Graham Fox, president of the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, says Quebec is more heterogeneous politically than many pundits give it credit for. Federal politicians likely recognize that they're dealing with a much more complex picture than the headline of a separatist win.
"If you go from region to region, you're actually looking at very different electoral contests and electoral battlegrounds," said Fox, a former chief of staff to Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark.
"I'm not sure how much we can expect Pauline Marois to speak for all of Quebec..."
But Marois is expected to try and make that "keep calm and carry on" approach difficult for federal leaders to maintain.
Marois had already signalled a series of demands she wants to make of Ottawa — from taking over responsibility for employment insurance to foreign development bucks. She has promised to take any fights with Ottawa up with the courts, painting any resistance as more evidence of the necessity for sovereignty.
"We won't be satisfied with just getting more powers. What we want is Quebec sovereignty," Marois recently told the Globe and Mail.
"And until we achieve it following a referendum, what we want is to get more power on what makes us different as people."
This won't be a foreign tactic to Harper, himself a wedge-politics maestro. For years, his Conservatives have pressed emotional buttons on issues such as the gun registry, on crime, on economic turmoil and on Israel, in a bid to polarize the electorate and win support.
From the other side of the political spectrum, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has also tried to drive his share of wedges.
Marois comes ready to press some buttons of her own, including the most sensitive of issues — culture, language and identity.
Philippe Gervais, a Montreal-based consultant who worked on the 2004 and 2006 federal Conservative campaigns, says Marois can be expected to use Harper and the Conservatives as part of her argument for a majority.
"The Parti Quebecois is going to try to get into fights with Harper and put him out there as a bogeyman," said Gervais.
"Every time one of the further right-wing guys goes out with some crazy idea and goes out on a tangent, they're going to use that."
Still, he said, Harper doesn't necessarily need to soften up his policies on law and order, the environment, and other areas that seem to rankle Quebecers. Rather, he needs to sell them better — a tricky task with so few MPs from the province.
Fox said Marois might actually be surprised to find that Harper responds to some of her demands for more devolution of powers. After all, Harper is a fan of classical federalism and greater decentralization of responsibilities.
"I think initially there may be some room for negotiation, and (with) Madame Marois in a minority situation, that might be the only thing that's palatable to the National Assembly," said Fox.
While Harper figures out how to interact with a separatist in Quebec City, Mulcair will be trying to figure out the right tone to take.
So far, Mulcair has succeeded in keeping a muzzle on his caucus, which includes some members who have flirted with the sovereignty movement. His younger MPs, some of whom were university students when they were elected last spring, have kept dutifully silent during the tuition protests in Quebec.
"It will be a test of the NDP's maturity as an aspiring government whether they can handle those two pressures — the obligation for Mulcair to communicate that he supports a strong Canada and strong federal government, while at the same time not alienating the more nationalist Quebec base that currently has him as leader of the official opposition," said Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the Mowat Centre for Policy and Innovation.
Gervais said Mulcair might also find himself in an awkward spot because some of his left-wing political views align with those of Marois.
"As Pauline Marois tries to get into a fight with Harper, does he want to see himself line-up with Marois on a particular issue?"
But will the new reality in Quebec City make a difference to the fortunes of federal politicians outside of the province?
In the past, part of what motivated federal politicians to develop strategies or policies vis-a-vis Quebec was a strong support for national unity elsewhere in Canada. The accepted wisdom was that Ontario voters would support a prime minister who held the country together.
The country just isn't the same as it was Quebec referendum in 1995, said Mendelsohn.
"Patriation and Meech Lake are ancient history and more and more Canadians have no recollection of these issues," said Mendelsohn, also an associate professor at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.
"New Canadians may study them in their citizenship tests, but the notion of accommodating Quebec is in no way part of the day-to-day grammar of Canadians outside of Quebec anymore."
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