Mulcair plays both sides of the sovereignty street
N o one, but no one, is talking about another Quebec referendum, any time soon. But we have to be ready for one, right? Just in case Pauline Marois calls an election and is returned with a majority government, plunging Quebec into unprecedented uncertainty. Yeah, right. So what is going on in Ottawa with the NDP proposing a private member’s bill (PMB) to amend the Clarity Act, which calls for a clear answer to a clear question on a referendum?
As the House resumed on Monday, the NDP was baited by the Bloc Québécois, which proposed its own private member’s bill to repeal the Clarity Act altogether.
What the NDP is proposing is essentially its 2005 Sherbrooke declaration, which held that 50 per cent plus one would be enough to carry the day in a referendum, as was the case in the 1980 and 1995 referendums held by the Quebec government.
In the view of NDP leader Tom Mulcair: “The side that wins, wins.”
Not exactly, according to the 2000 Clarity Act, passed by the Chrétien government and upheld by the Supreme Court.
It was the near-death experience of the 1995 referendum, in which the No side prevailed by only one point, 50.58 to 49.42 per cent on a soft sovereignty-partnership question, which prompted the feds to define clear rules of the game for negotiating the breakup of the country.
But this isn’t about that. It’s about Mulcair trying to play both sides of the street.
It’s not clear how much the NDP’s Sherbrooke declaration opened doors of soft nationalist Bloc voters to the party six years later in the 2011 election. That was about Jack Layton, the man with the cane, le bon Jack.
But this is certainly about shoring up the NDP’s new base in Quebec, which returned 59 Quebec MPs in that election, propelling the party from fourth to second place in Parliament.
Nor is it clear if either PMB will ever come to a vote in the House, as they have to take a priority number and are way down the list. In any event, neither would ever pass, as the Conservatives and Liberals both support the Clarity Act as enacted and approved by the Supremes.
Yet while Mulcair was playing to the 50-plus-one gallery, the NDP was also proposing stronger language for a referendum question, such as: “Should Quebec separate from Canada and become a sovereign country?”
Mulcair knows perfectly well that no Quebec government will ever write a referendum question using the word “separate” or “separation.”
Mulcair knows this from his own time on the front lines of the debate in the National Assembly, and before that as a young lawyer for Alliance Quebec, which was a federalist front. No one can say he hasn’t done his part in the long struggle to keep Canada whole.
Nor has he been speaking out of both sides of his mouth on the question of 50 plus one. He has been saying exactly the same thing in Toronto as in Ottawa or Montreal. Yet he is playing a double game. And on Monday he got called out on it by Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau, who represents the east end Montreal riding of Papineau, where he defeated a popular Bloc incumbent in 2008 and was easily re-elected in 2001. Trudeau knows a soft nationalist when he sees one.
“You cannot be half pregnant on the question of Canadian unity,” Trudeau said on the leadership campaign trail in Calgary. “It’s a very careful political calculation by him to appeal to his strong nationalist base in Quebec.” Exactly right. As Trudeau also pointed out, Mulcair’s 50-plus-one gambit does not bode well for any kind of non-aggression pact, united front or merger between the NDP and the Liberals to block the Conservatives and Stephen Harper in the next election.
While the Liberals are a party of the pragmatic centre, some things are fundamental to their brand. The Charter of Rights is one. Official languages and multiculturalism is another. And so is the Clarity Act, part of the party’s living legacy.
Nearly a year into his leadership, Mulcair has been generally impressive in the role. He’s skated the loony left wing of the party into the boards. He kept his young Quebec MPs out of the Quebec election. He’s imposed total discipline on his caucus. And you thought Stephen Harper was a control freak. Mulcair is also moving the NDP closer to the centre on major policy issues. And he’s very good on his feet in the House.
Maybe he just wants to get the 50-plus-one thing behind him, so he can say the NDP’s position is clearly on the record, and on the floor of the House itself.
Another referendum? Not in his time in Parliament.