NDP move on Clarity Act reveals delicate balancing act

When New Democratic Leader Tom Mulcair backed a NDP private member's bill dealing with the always touchy issue of Quebec sovereignty, was it an act of principle or an attempt to out-maneouvre the rival Bloc Quebecois?

New Democratic Leader Tom Mulcair came under fire this week from all political fronts after tabling a private member's bill dealing with the always touchy issue of Quebec sovereignty.

The bill's proponents say it puts the clarity back into the "Clarity Act" passed by the Liberal Government in 2000 following the heart-stopping result of the 1995 Quebec Referendum.

Opponents say the NDP is playing a dangerous game pitting the interests of its nationalist base in Quebec against the interests of Canadians.

The NDP leader passionately defended his federalist credentials Wednesday.

"I was there in the 1980 Referendum, I fought in the trenches, ... I know what it's like to fight for Quebec in Canada; my whole career has been about that. So nobody can question me on that."

Still, the NDP bill attempts to bridge that fault line that continues to exist between Canada’s two official language groups – particularly when it comes to the national question.

The bill sets out to define an acceptable question for any future referendum on sovereignty in Quebec.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says his party is seeking to clarify ambiguity in the Clarity Act, which sets conditions for a referendum and negotiations for separation from Canada. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But it also sets out how much of a majority would be enough to launch negotiations for the separation of Quebec from Canada, at 50-per-cent-plus-one.

The proposal is not new for the NDP. It was part of the party's 2005 "Sherbrooke Declaration."

"Some people are shocked that we have the courage of our convictions, but it's the only way to do politics," Mulcair told journalists following a caucus meeting Wednesday.

"We have a positive constructive offer on the table, and compared to the Liberal (Clarity Act) law; ... that has no clarity on the numbers, and no clarity on the question. We clarify these two elements. And we want to make sure that we find the winning conditions for Quebec and Canada."

Other parties reacted harshly.

On Wednesday, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae told reporters, "what (Mulcair) is proposing is bad for Quebec and Canada and the future of Canadian democracy. And there is a complete and total incoherence in the proposal they're suggesting."

Earlier in the week, Justin Trudeau, frontrunner in the Liberal leadership race, went further while campaigning in Alberta, telling reporters "You cannot be half-pregnant on the question of Canadian unity."

"(Mulcair's) willingness to equivocate, his willingness to be open to a 50-per-cent-plus one vote on sovereignty takes us back in a direction that we don't want to go. It's a very careful political calculation by him to appease his strong nationalist base in Quebec," Trudeau said.

Christian Paradis, one of the few remaining Conservative Quebec MPs, also dismissed the private member’s bill Wednesday, saying Canadians are not interested in opening up old battles.

The NDP and the Bloc

The key to understanding the politics of all this is the context. Before the end of the last session, Bloc Québécois MP André Bellavance introduced his own private member’s bill, C-457, "an Act to Repeal the Clarity Act."

It would have forced the NDP to decide whether to abandon the principals of its own "Sherbrooke Declaration" or vote with the Bloc while the rest of Parliament howled.

Not liking the choice, the NDP introduced its own private member’s bill Monday; the very same day debate began on the Bloc bill.

'The challenge for (Mulcair) is that what has allowed the NDP to become the Official Opposition is Quebec, but governing will involve the rest of Canada'—Luc Turgeon, University of Ottawa

It’s important to note that the legitimacy of the sovereignty option and Quebecers’ right to self-determination is important even for many Quebec federalists. Defence of the concept of 50-per-cent-plus-one, therefore, is widely considered simply an acknowledgement of Quebecers' right to choose their own destiny.

"It's an issue of principle," says Luc Turgeon of the University of Ottawa's school of political science. In fact, he points out 50-per-cent-plus-one is the position of the federalist Liberal Party of Quebec.

"It's accepted by sovereigntists and federalists."

Turgeon suggests many Quebecers may even understand that to get international recognition, they may need a much clearer majority.

But they also want Canada to acknowledge Quebec's right to decide its own future.

And on that front, the ambiguity of the Clarity Act is seen by some Quebecers as an outstanding sore point.

What is a 'clear majority'?

The Act — which followed a 1998 Supreme Court reference on Quebec secession — calls for a "clear majority" but leaves that majority undefined. Mulcair suggests his private member's bill puts the issue in line with the Supreme Court decision.

But take a closer look at the court's decision.

The panel of judges unanimously decided: "The Reference requires us to consider whether Quebec has a right to unilateral secession. Those who support the existence of such a right found their case primarily on the principle of democracy. Democracy, however, means more than simple majority rule."

In other words, democracy means more than 50-per-cent-plus-one.

The man who introduced the NDP bill, Toronto-Danforth MP Craig Scott, is so far down the list of House of Commons Members it could take years before anyone gets to debate the bill's content, and an election could kill it before then.

But perhaps it should be considered in terms of what it says about the delicate position the NDP faces balancing the needs of its majority Quebec caucus and its ambitions in the rest of Canada in the next election.

"The challenge for (Mulcair) is that what has allowed the NDP to become the Official Opposition is Quebec, but governing will involve the rest of Canada," Turgeon says.

Delicate balance

He believes the volatility of Quebec support will be a constant preoccupation for the NDP leader. "But," Turgeon adds, "every day Mulcair spends on the 'national question,' is a bad day for Mulcair."

Turgeon suggests as long as Mulcair sticks to talking about issues shared by potential supporters both in Quebec and the rest of Canada — think, social policy — he can cater to both constituencies.

In the long term, Turgeon suggests Mulcair's positions on the national question could hurt him.

"If sovereignty comes back, then he may not be seen as strong enough against Quebec to protect Canadian interests."

In the short term, the Bloc has already forced the NDP to debate the issue Monday, and is set for another debate later this spring, as well as a vote on second reading.

Surely, the Bloc will be joined by the separatist Parti Québécois, currently leading a minority government in Quebec, in commenting publicly on the NDP’s performance.

If the Bloc’s goal was to draw the NDP out on the combustible issues dividing Quebec and Canada — mission accomplished.