THE VOTERS of Quebec have reached a supposedly radical government because they want to keep things as they are. It's true that the winning party, the Parti Quebecois, is led by people who would like to see the province separate itself from the rest of Canada to become an independent nation. But when they put that question to a referendum last spring, the voters said no. The PQ has promised not to revive the issue in the five-year term that it now begins. And yet things-as-they-are means a great deal of distance, not to say tension, between Quebec and the Canadian federal government in Ottawa.

There's no real inconsistency between the rejection of separatism last year and the reelection of the separatist government this year. The Parti Quebecois has given the province regorously clean and competent government, and that purely local and unpartisan issue had as much to do with the outcome as anything else. The PQ defends the status of the French Language much more forcefully than the federal government is prepared to do. Occasionally the PQ shakes its fist at big business, which means business run by English-speaking Canadians. As long as there's no actual threat of separation, Quebec prefers the separatists.

Canada seems to be evolving into a loose confederation of regional interests. The old quarrel over Quebec's special standing has been overshadowed, within the past year, by other issues raised by other provinces. Alberta has been engaged in a vehement row with Ottawa over energy policy and oil price controls. Most of the provinces are actively challenging the federal government over a proposed reform of the constitution -- the central question being, inevitably, the provinces' powers.

In all the other industrial democracies, political authority is being increasingly centralized in the national government. In this country the states, over the past generation, have become much weaker in relation to Washington. Canada, with its vast territory and dispersed population, is the sole exception, as it develops more latitude to provinces strongly marked by their ethnic and economic differences. The Quebec vote supports and strengthens that trend