PQ minority win unlikely to prompt referendum call

The election of a minority Parti Québécois government again raises the possibility of a referendum on sovereignty but CBC National Affairs Specialist Greg Weston says such a vote is unlikely to come any time soon.

Pauline Marois faces challenges in calling vote on Quebec sovereignty

The night the Quebec separatists were run out of office in 2003, and Jean Charest was first elected Liberal premier of the province, he took to the stage at his victory party in hometown Sherbrooke and declared: "It's not only Quebec that is starting to change tonight, it is Canada."

Nine years later, the Liberals are out, Charest has lost his seat, and Quebec is about to start changing again, this time under a newly-elected minority Parti Québécois government led by Pauline Marois.

And once again, the rest of Canada braces for the fallout.

But no one could have imagined what happened on election night.

Shortly before midnight, as Marois was reaching the crescendo of her acceptance speech to a packed Montreal concert hall, her provincial police bodyguards suddenly rushed her off stage.

Police later said a man had entered the back of the building, shot two people and set a fire outside the complex before being arrested by police. One person was shot dead and another was critically injured.

CBC News footage at the scene showed the blaze, a hooded man pinned to the ground by police, and what looked like a rifle and handgun lying nearby.

It was all a terrifying exclamation point to the election campaign.

If the shootings prove to have been politically or ideologically motivated, Quebec may have entered a new and frightening period in its sometimes violent history.

Everyone take a Valium

Exactly where a minority PQ government will now lead Quebec — and the rest of the country — has been the subject of marathon speculation.

Over the course of the campaign, a parade of experts predicted a PQ win would spawn just about everything from acute political irritation to a national economic disaster.

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois was whisked off stage as she delivered her victory speech in Montreal on Tuesday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

But as the dust settles on Quebec's latest electoral sandstorm, ordinary Canadians might do well to heed René Lévesque's advice depicted in Aislin's famous cartoon in the Montreal Gazette the day after the election of Quebec's first PQ government in 1976:

Everyone take a Valium.

The mixed decision of Quebec voters has probably left the country out of any clear and present political danger.

The popular vote could barely have been closer, with the Liberals losing to the PQ by less than a single per cent; the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, led by millionaire and former PQ minister François Legault, barely five per cent back.

In effect, Quebecers voted for change and kicked out the three-term Liberals without giving the PQ either a mandate to march the province into a referendum or the political means to force one. The PQ received only 32 per cent of Tuesday’s vote.

And with only 54 of the province’s 125 seats in the national assembly, the PQ will need the support of either the 50 seats held by the opposition Liberals, or the 19-seat CAQ — just to stay in office, much less force a vote on sovereignty.

The Liberals won’t support any move towards a referendum, and Legault has promised his party wouldn’t either for at least another decade.

In the meantime, the minority PQ government will be lucky to survive 18 months.

Holding the PQ together

In conceding defeat Tuesday night, both Charest and Legault pledged to work with the new PQ government.

But even if the opposition parties prop up the shaky minority in order to regroup and give voters a break from the polls, Marois’ biggest challenge may be holding her own party together.

Seconds before her acceptance speech was suddenly aborted, Marois told her party faithful: "We want a country, and we will have it."

The comment was clearly directed at the PQ’s hard-core sovereigntists, many of whom walked out on her and the party before the election because she was not sufficiently rabid about breaking up the country.

Marois has to fear that her failure to win a majority, and the resulting demise of any referendum plans in the foreseeable future, will send even more PQ stalwarts running for the exits.

All of which likely brought at least a modest sigh of relief in the offices of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

It could have been worse.

A majority PQ win could have been game-changing to federal-provincial relations; a minority is at least relatively temporary and far less menacing.

That is not to say it will be federal-provincial business as usual. Far from it.

As Harper knows well from years of experience, minority government means being in constant campaign mode.

New lens of a PQ Quebec

And for Marois and the PQ that means demonizing the federal government at every opportunity between now and the next Quebec election.

Harper’s strategists are fully expecting Marois to come to Ottawa with one hand out for more Canadian tax dollars and greater provincial powers, while the other hand carries a sharp stick in search of  federalist eyes to poke, hoping to provoke a fight that plays well with the sovereigntist base back home.

Quebec Liberal Leader Jean Charest failed to get re-elected in his home riding of Sherbrooke. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

In short, Marois’ goal will be to put all kinds of demands on the feds, and get them to say, no, as frequently and ferociously as possible.

In response, everything the Harper government does — every appointment, every new piece of legislation, every major federal contract and corporate handout — will have to be viewed through a new lens of a PQ Quebec.

With a referendum off the table for now, the federal Conservatives will be anxious to avoid anything that could strengthen the PQ’s hand in the next provincial election.

But don’t expect a lot of fireworks from Ottawa.

Harper’s response to Tuesday’s vote was measured and respectful of the mandate Quebecers have given Marois.

In a prepared statement, he congratulated Marois for her win.

But Harper also underscored the importance of staying focused on prudent economic management through this period of international fiscal turmoil. "We do not believe that Quebecers wish to revisit the old constitutional battles of the past."

NDP facing a sticky situation

Insiders say the Prime Minister’s Office will maintain particularly strict control over what Conservative MPs say about Quebec in the months to come.

They say Conservative ministers will be careful to avoid talking about possible doomsday scenarios, even in the likely event that the uncertainty surrounding a minority PQ government causes some degree of investment chill in Quebec.

One way or another, life just got more difficult for the Harper government.

Life is also about to get politically sticky for New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair.

More than half of the NDP seats in Parliament are occupied by MPs from Quebec, elected in large measure by a surprise shift of votes to the party from the federal separatist Bloc Québécois.

If Mulcair now tries to play federalism’s Captain Canada and takes on the PQ, he risks losing huge swaths of his party’s support in Quebec.

If he makes nice with Marois and the separatists, he would most certainly face a backlash in the rest of the country.

One thing is certain in the aftermath of yesterday’s ballot count in Quebec.

In the likely event that Jean Charest is taking his final bow after 28 years in federal and provincial politics, the Canadian federation is losing one of its most able and devoted defenders.