The separatist Bloc Québécois is gasping for air, rendered irrelevant by the decision of Quebeckers in the 2011 election to stop abstaining and choose among the parties dedicated to actually governing Canada. As history will record, in 2011 that choice was the New Democratic Party.
Now the Bloc's tiny Parliamentary rump is trying to resuscitate old fights to remain relevant, and has decided to find one area where they are unique among the four parties in Quebec -- the repeal of the Clarity Act. This is not an academic question -- the Bloc remains second in most polls in Quebec, and if they can gain other 6 or 7 points in the polls, they will likely again have the most MPs in Quebec.
The Clarity Act, a gift of Stephane Dion, has the admirable goal of reminding Quebeckers of what the Supreme Court said in a landmark ruling -- that Canada gets a say in any terms of secession, and that the mandate to separate must be clear in both the question asked and the voters' reply. Neither the ruling or the Act say precisely what those must be, but there is general direction that the clearer the question, the lower the number needed. A vague question and a slim majority won't be good enough, in part because one cannot say for sure that the majority would have held once be terms were negotiated.
Since the Bloc wants to force other parties to vote on a full repeal of the Act and show that only the Bloc has that position, NDP MP Craig Scott has offered a bill with a clear challenge to the Bloc -- a simple majority will carry a referendum, IF you agree that the question will be "Should Quebec separate from Canada?"
Now comes the debate. Liberal Leader-to-be Justin Trudeau says that the 50%+1 threshold is unacceptably low. Speaking as someone who likes the Clarity Act a lot, I'm wondering if, in fact, Tom Mulcair has just shrewdly called the separatists' bluff.
Let's start with this -- Mulcair's provincial political career allows us to know exactly where he stands on these questions. He is a federalist, ran for the federalist party, campaigned against separation in referenda, and is appropriately loathed by separatists in Quebec. You won't find quotes from him wanting to build firewalls around his province, as Mr. Harper has, or stating that separatism could be an option if the wrong party governs, as Mr. Trudeau has. If you accept the federalism of Mssrs. Harper and Trudeau on balance (and you should), then Mr. Mulcair's greater constancy should also be granted.
Let's also assume that a federalist wants the Bloc to lose, and wants to deny Premier Marois the chance to see the "winning conditions" she wants for a referendum. That means sidestepping provocations sometimes. The Bloc and PQ want to goad Canadians into divisive fights, and polarize their electorate. Federalists who win, from Mulcair to Charest to Chrétien, get good at avoiding bun fights.
This is important -- when Quebeckers are asked in polls a straight "Do you want to separate from Canada?" question, they never say yes. Often support is below 40% on ha question, as it is today. That's why both PQ referenda have asked weasel questions about supporting mandates along the terms of motions etc, etc -- separatists will never fight a referendum with the question Mulcair has proposed.
I dislike politicians who pander to Quebec nationalists. I voted for Stephane Dion in part because of his tough intellectual treatment of the PQ premier of the day. But in Mulcair's motion, I don't see capitulation. I see a tough bit of bluff-calling from a guy who beats the separatists a lot.
Mulcair knows this bill will never become law - it's a private member's bill stuck way down the order paper. But if he's ever Prime Minister, he has strong grounds to refuse to entertain separatist weasel questions later. He's offered them a clear question. And they won't take it. End of discussion.
If the separatists asked a straight question, and 56% of Quebeckers said "yes", it's not really clear that the nation would be governable without something significant happening next. All 3 leaders know that. For all the tough talk, Justin Trudeau isn't explaining how, exactly, he would wish result away. Nor should any leader address that hypothetical -- the separatists won't ask that question, and they won't win if they do. By focussing on that Achilles Heel of the Bloc's cause, the Mulcair approach might be the best way to make sure we are all spared the uncertainty of them even trying.
I should make a last point, just so no one thinks I've fallen off the turnip truck. Yes, of course Mulcair's bill has a political purpose -- to deny the Bloc the clear vote on the Clarity Act they want, The better to keep beating them. Trudeau also has a political purpose in critiquing Mulcair -- stuck in 3rd behind a more centrist NDP, he needs a wedge to win back progressive voters. After all, if this was really about federalism and defence of the flag, Mr. Trudeau would have also asked the Bloc why they won't accept a clear question, but he hasn't critiqued the Bloc, just the federalist NDP.
So, Mr. Mulcair has made a political manoeveur to keep beating the Bloc and the PQ. Mr. Trudeau has made a political manoeveur to beat the NDP. We'll have to decide which one of those causes is more worth a touch of shrewd politics.