Justin Trudeau probably has a death grip on the Party’s future. And his father and former national leader Stephan Dion holds as lethal a grip on its greatest issue: How best to campaign for Canada in Quebec?
Adventuresome Liberal leadership candidates can be heartless about a dead long-gun registry or supply management protections for a few thousand dairy farmers. But they mustn't question the constitutional orthodoxy, political savvy, and masculine appeal of the Clarity Act, 2000—Stephan Dion’s federalist straightjacket for any future Quebec threat to the Canadian union.
The Clarity Act tells Quebecers that Canada’s House of Commons must approve the ballot question and then accept the results of a winning referendum before the Government of Canada would be allowed to negotiate independence terms with Quebec. It determines how the federal government would negotiate, and ensures all other parties to the Canadian Constitution are in on the negotiations as well.
It was inspired, as well as drafted, by constitutional lawyers, and it was launched by a federal government whose political center of gravity had moved decisively to Ontario. It is resented in Quebec.
It tells Quebec how to play their game. It’s meant to avoid a mess by promising to turn a mess into a nightmare.
To put it brutally: in Canada’s Cold War between federalists and Quebec sovereignists, the Clarity Act is a strike force of intercontinental ballistic missiles. It is better than anything else—as long as it’s never used.
Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats have just proposed replacing it with a Unity Act. Under its terms, the Quebec Government and the Federal Government could enter into secessionist negotiations if a simple majority of Quebecers voted yes to a clear question.
It doesn’t codify, in advance, how either government should act to mitigate the damage of a yes vote. It leaves it to elected pragmatists—if Quebec’s leaders persist—to negotiate promptly a way forward for two affluent and interdependent countries.
Stephane Dion is damning: their bill is too focused on Quebec, is too permissive, and it doesn’t adequately instruct the federal government on how to negotiate. He signs off by saying that the NDP is “trying to please the ‘separatists’ at the expense of the rights of Quebeckers and of all Canadians.”
Justin Trudeau attacked Mulcair’s “willingness to equivocate, his willingness to be open to a 50%-plus-one vote on sovereignty, takes us back in a direction that we don’t want to go, and it’s a very careful political calculation by him to appease his strong nationalist base in Quebec.”
Questioning the motives and backbone of other politicians has passed for intellectual rigor in Canada since Justin’s father entered politics in the 60s.
It’s not jarring that his son and acolyte would practice it now. It’s a stretch, however, to complain as well that Mulcair wants to "take us back." The Liberals appear determined to stick with the "tough guy" approach—the one they used back when they actually had power in Ottawa and led the federalists in Quebec.
It’s too early to know whether they are still smarter than everyone else or, as they are on many issues, simply unwilling yet to try something new. Nevertheless, while the Bloc Quebecois forced Mulcair to show his hand, the outcome may serve him well.
The NDP holds five times more seats in Quebec (59 to 12) than the two other major federalist parties and, so, has changed the mainstream’s federalist strategy. Now the Clarity Act is, effectively, the approach of the Liberal Party, with its seven Quebec Members of Parliament.
Mulcair’s position can unite federalists in Quebec. It can be accepted by swing votes, the "soft nationalists" who decide who wins. The Clarity Act never could do either.
The Clarity Act played nicely with federalists in the rest of Canada who wanted a tough federalist response and accepted the argument that Quebec separatists would cheat to win.
There are two problems today with this approach.
First: English-speaking Canada already has a strong Prime Minister. They know Harper isn’t loved. However, he’s credible on national unity and he’s shown poise and sophistication in his dealings with Quebec.
Second: it’s increasingly awkward to demand that Quebecers decide between the status quo and a 19th-century sovereign Quebec.
The demand—implicit in the Clarity Act—that a massive super majority of Quebec francophones must want to severely disrupt their lives and risk economic free-fall to get the federal government to negotiate independence is not fair or believable.
Canadians are all soft nationalists now.
Both sides in another referendum would want—whatever the final count and damn fool question—to settle on mutually beneficial arrangements.
No Act of Parliament is necessary to help Quebecers think clearly or to tell a competent federal government how to do its job.