Quebec election call: federal political dance begins

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois is ready to send Quebecers back to the polls just 18 months into the mandate of her minority government. If she pulls off the expected victory, it likely means another sovereignty referendum down the road. That has federal politicians trying to walk a fine line.

Only the Liberals and the BQ have clear provincial counterparts, so a tricky time lies ahead for the others

Although Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois hasn’t yet formally committed to another sovereignty referendum, should she win a majority of the national assembly’s 125 seats, those who would be called to arms for another national unity battle are bracing for it. (Clement Allard/Canadian Press)

With Wednesday's election call in Quebec, Premier Pauline Marois will set off a frantic race in the province and a delicate dance in Ottawa.

The Parti Québécois is ahead in the polls and gaining momentum in the weeks leading up to the campaign.

Most pollsters, pundits, and politicians (for what they are worth) predict the odds of a Parti Québécois majority somewhere between "likely" and "a sure thing."

Although Marois hasn’t yet formally committed to another sovereignty referendum, should she win a majority of the national assembly’s 125 seats, those who would be called to arms for another national unity battle are bracing for it.

“Look, this is the last hurrah of that generation,” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said recently in an interview with CBC’s The House.

The strategy for federal(ist) politicians will come in three waves:

1st wave: Let the chips fall where they may

Federal politicians of all stripes will be reminded that this is Quebec’s election and to stay out of it.

For some, it’s a question of not doing or saying anything the PQ would quickly spin into “interference” from Ottawa in Quebec’s affairs — thereby triggering a backlash to federalist efforts.

For others, it’s about not being sure whose side members of your team might come out on.

This task will be easiest for the governing Conservatives. With only five MPs in the province, it’s not very difficult to keep a tight leash on them.

Also, with the choice for Quebec voters being among a sovereigntist party, a soft-nationalist party and a Liberal Party — the Conservatives don’t really have a horse in this race.

The bigger concern for the governing party is having someone express the “good riddance” sentiment felt by some pockets in the "rest of Canada" who are a little fatigued after decades of battles to keep Quebec in the country.

For the Liberals the goal is to not make things worse for their provincial cousins.

Justin Trudeau’s year at the helm of the party has seen the support for the Liberals jump in Quebec, but sticking below 40 per cent.

The Trudeau name still holds bitter memories for some in the province who haven’t forgotten — or forgiven — the War Measures Act being invoked during the 1970 October Crisis.

To be fair, not many of those who still curse Pierre Elliott Trudeau would vote for the federalist option in Quebec,

The risk lies in the simple mathematics one must always consider when pondering the "Quebec Question" in the current generation: roughly 30 per cent of the population are die-hard federalists, 30 per cent are pur et dur separatists, and the remaining 40 per cent waver between the camps. 

A polarizing figure must be certain his or her poles are aligned in the desired direction before intervening.

The NDP has the most challenging time of it. With fully three-quarters of Quebec’s seats in the House of Commons, the NDP’s Quebec caucus represents a cross-section of the province’s political landscape.

Although none of the MPs is currently openly advocating for Quebec sovereignty or the PQ, there are many who have aligned with the sovereigntist Québéc Solidaire.

The problem with Mulcair picking sides is that not all of his caucus may follow.

So, he’s keeping it simple: "We didn't get involved in the provincial campaign last time around. We won't be getting involved this time," he told reporters on the eve of the election call.

Exempt from this non-interference rule, of course, is what’s left of the Bloc Québécois.

Down to four MPs (after expelling one for deigning to criticize the PQ’s highly controversial charter of values and picking up another who defected from the NDP over its position on the Clarity Act) they are free to openly and vigorously support their provincial counterparts.

2nd wave: Turn the other cheek

Doctors swear a vow to do no harm. In the event of a PQ majority, that will become the mantra of federal politicians.

The latest polls from Quebec put support for sovereignty right about where it’s been for about a decade, hovering in the upper-30 per cent range. The PQ is doing what it can to change that, and will continue to do so.

The charter of values, was the first real salvo from Quebec trying to bait Ottawa into constitutional battle.

While obviously objecting to the charter of values' clearly ethno-nationalist goals, Ottawa has not made overt pre-emptive efforts to stop it..

The PQ is using the issue to polarize the electorate and return the battle in Quebec to a more favourable two-way by undermining the nascent CAQ.

It's not clear if this political ploy will also provoke a crisis of the magnitude necessary for the PQ to carry a sovereignty referendum.

Christian Bourque of Leger marketing says, “It would take a severe crisis, like the death of Meech Lake, to sort of revive that flame. That isn’t burning very high right now. And I don’t see it right now, it doesn’t seem to be in the cards."

While the eventuality of a third Quebec referendum may be a ways off, the next federal election will be 18 months down the road.

3rd wave: Crisis presents opportunity

Quebec will hold 78 of the House of Commons’ 338 seats after reallocation comes into effect in the next election.

The Conservatives proved in 2011 you don’t necessarily need to win that many seats in the country’s second most populous province to form a majority government, but that is the exception, not the rule.

It’s been a tough slog for the governing party to win (and then keep) seats in Quebec — a PQ government spoiling for a fight won’t make that any easier.

Few expect the NDP to fully repeat the "Orange Crush" of 2011 in the next election, but clearly Mulcair is pitching to Canadians that he is best positioned to carry the "No" banner in any eventual referendum campaign.

For the Bloc Québécois it could mean a new lease on life. With another referendum in the air, it could argue its place to defend Quebec’s interests in Ottawa should be renewed.

Although that would be quite a feat.

The BQ formed in 1990 as the Meech Lake accord was collapsing. At the time seven MPs from the then Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals abandoned their parties to sit with the charismatic Lucien Bouchard.

Today, the Bloc Québécois has four members in the House of Commons, is leaderless, and Quebec has just set aside its differences with Ottawa and signed a $115-million deal on job training — a move Quebec's Labour Minister AgnèsMaltais says recognizes Quebec's "unique character."


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