Citizen-initiated referendum possible with PQ minority

A PQ minority government could still try to fulfil its election promise to bring in legislation allowing a citizen initiative that could lead to Quebec's third sovereignty referendum. But before such a vote could take place, many things would need to happen.
Although the PQ was elected Sept. 4 with its second lowest popular vote since it was first elected in 1976, the minority government could still introduce citizen-initiative legislation. (CBC)

At her press conference the day after leading her Parti Québécois to victory, no reporter asked Pauline Marois about a referendum on sovereignty, according to several news reports.

That's not surprising, both because she will head a minority government and because during the campaign, and before, she left the impression she did not believe this was the time for a referendum.

"I will adopt what it is possible for me to adopt," she told the media on Wednesday.

However, the PQ could still try to bring in legislation on citizen initiatives — as they promised during the campaign — a process that could eventually lead to Quebec's third sovereignty referendum.

But before such a vote could take place, many things would need to happen. It's also possible for another election to remake the Quebec political scene given a PQ minority government.

The PQ election platform simply states the party's support for a referendum when it gets the support of 15 per cent of the electorate through a citizen initiative.

First, legislation around citizen initiatives needs to be drafted, introduced, studied, debated, passed and become law.

That plank became a part of the PQ election platform after a debate in January at the party's national council. At the time there was something of a crisis around Marois's leadership, initiated after some caucus members left the party because they perceived Marois as unwilling to promise to hold a referendum if elected.

At the council meeting, MNA Bernard Drainville made the argument that the sovereignty issue did not belong solely to the PQ, that other parties and movements that support a sovereignty option should be given the right to initiate a referendum, even if the government was not in favour.

In the end, the PQ did support citizen initiatives, which some observers felt was done to stifle dissent within the party.

Citizen initiative law required

The first step on this road would be to draft legislation to amend the Referendum Act, according to Daniel Turp, who teaches constitutional law at the Université de Montreal. Turp is also a former PQ MNA and a former Bloc Québécois MP.

Constitutional law expert Daniel Turp says the first step towards a citizen-initiative referendum in Quebec requires the introduction of an amendment to Quebec's Referendum Act. (Radio-Canada)

Marois did not make a big deal about citizen initiatives during the election campaign, and did make clear that other issues are priorities.

Turp does not expect citizen initiatives will be something the Marois government makes part of its first hundred days of governing.

Historian David Mitchell agrees. The native Montrealer is now the president and CEO of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. Mitchell argues that with its citizen initiative policy, the PQ has, "very adroitly deferred the actual, practical matter of a referendum, perhaps until the next election or certainly for the next several years."

By providing a means for citizens to make this happen on their own, the PQ takes the political pressure off itself, Mitchell told CBC News.

Turp says a PQ government could table the legislation as early as 2013. Indeed, Marois, perhaps anticipating a majority, told the La Presse editors that the referendum in Scotland on independence that's set for 2014 could provide an opportunity for Quebec to also hold a referendum, although she did acknowledge, even then, that the PQ may have to be more patient.

"We will be watching very closely what happens in Scotland," she said.

The B.C. experience

Of course, citizen-initiated referendums are already on the books outside Quebec, notably in some U.S. states, Switzerland and elsewhere.

In Canada, B.C.'s experience stands out.

David Mitchell was a Liberal MLA in B.C. when the NDP government introduced and eventually passed the Recall and Initiative Act in 1995.

At the time, he told CBC News, he wasn't sure it was a good idea but "if you are going to have this kind of so-called direct democracy, it should at least have the possibility of working."

And he thought by requiring the signatures of 10 per cent of the constituents in every riding, it was inconceivable a citizen-initiated referendum could happen.

As Mitchell recognizes, he was proved wrong. In 2011, a citizen initiative for a referendum on the harmonized sales tax (HST) succeeded.

Former British Columbia Premier Bill Vander Zalm holds a pair of boxing gloves given to him by a supporter while celebrating the result of the HST referendum vote with fellow supporters and his wife Lililian, right, in Vancouver, Aug. 26, 2011. (Ben Nelms/Reuters )

That effort was led by Bill Vander Zalm, B.C. premier from 1986 to 1991.

In 2009, the Liberals had been returned to office in a provincial election. A few months later, the government surprised and angered B.C. voters by announcing it would bring in the HST.

B.C.'s chief electoral officer approved Vander Zalm's petition proposal in February 2010 and the signature drive began that April. Vander Zalm delivered the petition two months later and in August the petition was approved. The mail-in referendum would not be completed until a year later, with the anti-HST forces prevailing.

The whole process took 16 months. On April 1, 2013, B.C. will drop the HST and bring back the PST and GST.

Setting a workable but not easy threshold

Vander Zalm told CBC News that the ten per cent in every constituency threshold made it very difficult but the PQ proposal of 15 per cent "may be too easy, if it's just 15 per cent of the electorate."

That is what the PQ platform says but Turp and others expect there will be some sort of regional threshold to meet, if and when a bill is introduced. During the PQ debate, Turp says the references were to regional thresholds, not constituency thresholds.

While Vander Zalm strongly supports citizen initiatives, he argues, "the rules need to be such that it's workable but not so easy as to make it, perhaps, so it can be abused."

Assuming citizen initiative legislation does become law in Quebec, before there can be a referendum, the next step is a petition campaign.

As the B.C. experience shows, that can be a tall order, since the anti-HST campaign is the only one to succeed. In Quebec, 15 per cent means gathering 850,000 signatures, although the exercise could be made easier if people can sign online.

Of course if the PQ government wants a referendum, there is no need for new legislation and no need for an onerous petition campaign. "The Referendum Act as it stands allows the government to initiate a referendum on its own," following 35 hours of debate in the National Assembly, Turp explained.

The timing issue

The PQ platform may be designed to be ambiguous, but that can hardly be the case with legislation on citizen initiatives.

Vander Zalm says, "There needs to be a time and a process spelled out in the legislation and not leave it up to the politicians."

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois takes the stage in Montreal Sept. 4, after winning the provincial election. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The PQ platform states that a sovereignty referendum will only take place at a time a PQ government "deems appropriate."

After being pressed on the citizen initiative issue during her debate with CAQ leader François Legault, Marois said, "I would have control over the timing of the referendum."

Mitchell expects the legislation will provide clarity on the timing but he says waiting any longer than six months after a successful petition, "starts to look awfully suspicious."

The PQ won the election but its popular vote was the second lowest it has received in any election since the one that brought the party to power for the first time in 1976 under René Lévesque.

Will Pauline Marois's government consider it appropriate to hold a sovereignty referendum if they are not confident the "Yes" side has majority support, perhaps 55 per cent?

The lessons of referendums past

In 1998, the leader of the 'Yes' campaign in the 1995 referendum, Lucien Bouchard, stands in front of a picture of former Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, the leader of the 1980 'Yes' campaign. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

That is one of the lessons of the 1980 and 1995 sovereignty referendums.

In 1978, the PQ government's Referendum Act became law.

A year later, Lévesque was in position to take advantage of the fact that an inexperienced Conservative government, with just two Quebec MPs, was in power in Ottawa and his long-time nemesis, Pierre Trudeau, had announced his resignation.

What followed was one of the greatest dramas in Canadian politics.

The Conservatives lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, forcing an election, Trudeau returned as leader, and went on to form a majority government in February 1980. Lévesque had lost one of his arguments for a "Yes" vote but it also set up the epic battle between the two popular Quebec leaders in the referendum set for May 20, 1980.

Turp says that Lévesque went into the campaign expecting to lose but did so since he had told voters he would.

During the few months before the 1980 referendum, polls did show strong support for a "Yes" to the official question, for a mandate to negotiate sovereignty association, 48 per cent on average.

When the ballots were counted, the result was 60 per cent "No" and 40 per cent "Yes".

Near victory for sovereignty in 1995

Fifteen years later, the second referendum was called by the new PQ government under Jacques Parizeau, also fulfilling an election promise. Ahead of the referendum campaign, it appeared the "Yes" side did not have sufficient support to achieve victory.

The "Yes" campaign also faltered under Parizeau's leadership, which led to former premier Lucien Bouchard replacing him at the head of the campaign. Support swung to the "Yes" side under the more popular Bouchard but when all the votes were finally counted, the "No" side had eked out a win with just 50.6 per cent of the vote.

PQ minority could push for citizen-initiative law

In this minority government situation, it's hard to see how the PQ could think the "winning conditions" for a sovereignty referendum exist.

However, that does not mean they wouldn't introduce legislation for citizen initiatives should their government last more than a year or so.

David Mitchell, CEO of the Public Policy Forum, sees the PQ having more manoeuvrability on the referendum issue in a minority government situation and may use the issue to put the opposition on the hot seat. (Courtesy Public Policy Forum)

On the one hand, they could use their minority status as a reason not to proceed because of uncertainty they would get opposition support to pass the bill. "In order to get the support, the PQ may have to deal with some demands they wouldn't necessarily want to agree with," Turp says.

However, he can also foresee a scenario where there would be political advantage to putting their opposition in a position where they may have to vote for or against citizen initiatives.

Mitchell sees the PQ in a minority situation having more manoeuvrability on the referendum issue. "If the PQ wanted to put the opposition parties on the hot seat," he speculates, "they could set up a pretty nice trap that would be very difficult for the opposition parties to vote against."

Should citizen-initiative legislation become law, the timing question remains, even if the PQ next time out should become a majority government.

If the timing is not opportune, Mitchell asks, "How do they forestall the effort of a minority to sponsor a citizen initiative that is going to have to lead, within a specific period of time, to a province-wide referendum at a time that coincides with the so-called winning conditions?"

Mitchell then adds, "This is where the art of politics becomes fascinating in Quebec."