Mul­cair plays both sides of the sovereignty street

Ottawa Citizen - - ARGUMENTS - L. IAN MACDON­ALD L. Ian MacDon­ald is a colum­nist for the Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen and Mon­treal Gazette. Email: lian­mac­don­ald@gmail.com

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.

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