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NDP continues to grapple with 'Clarity'

Parliament is back on Monday, February 25, after a one week break, and the Conservatives may be honing new attack lines.

 Going after the NDP for its (fictional) "job-killing carbon tax" as Conservative MPs and Ministers have been doing mercilessly -- hoping to reproduce the success they had in attacking former Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's "tax on everything" -- does not seem to be effective with most Canadians.

Worse, if you believe some commentators, that attack has sent all kinds of wrong signals to an Obama administration that has finally (re)discovered the looming climate change disaster.

One columnist even agonized that the Conservatives’ mindless and incessant repeating of the "carbon tax" attack might so turn off the Americans that the administration will turn thumbs down on the Keystone XL pipeline.

And so, Harper's troops might be rehearsing a new attack line -- maybe something about the NDP being willing to allow the country to split up on a 50% + 1 vote?

Backlash from the grassroots?

The NDP's attempt to replace the Clarity Act with a new law that is actually clearer than Clarity may be a reasonable policy prescription, but it is certainly not working from an "optics" point of view.

To be blunt, the Party has been taking a pasting for Toronto MP Craig Scott's so-called "Unity Bill."

Newspapers such as the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail have editorialized against it.

And the op-ed pages have been filled with condemnations.

Such diverse folks such as the MacDonald-Laurier Institute's Brian Lee Crowley and the Association for Canadian Studies' Jack Jedwab have weighed in, suggesting that the NDP is misreading the Supreme Court decision that led to the Clarity Act, and that the true motive for Craig Scott's Bill is to head off political threats from the Bloc in Quebec.

More troubling for the NDP is the backlash the Craig Scott initiative seems to be engendering among the Party's own supporters outside Quebec.

The problem for the NDP leadership is that the very idea of in any way recognizing the legitimacy of a 50%+1 vote on sovereignty may be inherently troubling to a great many people.

It is possible that, whatever arguments one were to marshal, there are a large number of Canadians who will never be convinced that a simple majority vote could be sufficient to "break up a country."

On some points the Unity Bill is tougher than Clarity, but has anyone noticed?

The problem for the NDP is that critics have focused exclusively on that 50% +1 number, and not on other provisions in the “Unity Bill” which are, in fact, more stringent than those of the Clarity Act.

Take the question of "the question" for example.

Both the 1980 and 1995 Quebec referendum questions were notoriously unclear.

The 1980 version was over a 100 words long, and asked voters if they wished a "new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations." It was not clear at all that the goal was separation from the Canadian federation.

In 1995, the question was a lot shorter, but still almost deliberately confusing.

It said: "Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

You could excuse voters for thinking the “agreement” mentioned in the question was between the Quebec and Canadian governments. It was, in fact, a tactical, political agreement between the three pro-sovereignty parties.

Both Clarity and Unity seek to head off this sort of chicanery.

But Clarity merely says that the House of Commons will pass judgment on the clarity of a question within 30 days of it being announced, and lays out some basic principles. The Bill states that the Commons will look askance at questions that yoke the notion of secession to some form of economic association with Canada.

To declare a question "clear" the Parliament of Canada must agree that the question would result in a clear expression of the will of the people that "the province should cease to be part of Canada and become an independent state."

However, the only consequence of the Commons deciding that a question was not clear would be that the Canadian Government would not consider itself bound to negotiate with the Quebec government in the event of an ultimate yes vote.

Craig Scott's Unity Bill is actually quite a bit tougher and much more specific in its actions and remedies.

First, it suggests actual wording the federal government would accept as clear, to wit: “Should Quebec become a sovereign country” or “Should Quebec separate from Canada and become a sovereign country.”

 If Quebec wanted to choose another question Unity says there must be agreement between the province and the federal government on any wording.

And, if the Quebec government were to persist and opt for a question the federal government considered vague or confusing, Unity has a stern remedy.

The federal government would then refer the matter to the (federally appointed) Quebec Court of Appeal.

50% +1 triggers negotiations not secession

The process prescribed by Unity is much more precise and would pose much more of a challenge to a Quebec separatist government than Clarity's.

But the NDP has not succeeded in getting that message out.

It is true that Unity does say that, in the end, if all sorts of tough conditions were met -- including the fairness and inclusiveness of the vote itself -- the federal government would accept that a yes vote of 50%+1 should trigger negotiations.

But the key word here is negotiations.

The Unity Bill clearly states that those negotiations would not, necessarily, lead to full secession of Quebec from Canada.

In fact, the Bill says the negotiations could lead to many other possible outcomes, including "the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec" and Quebec's right to "opt out" of federal programs in exclusive provincial fields of jurisdiction.

The Bill also affirms the constitutional rights of Aboriginal peoples and the right of other provinces, Aboriginal groups or the federal government to hold their own referendums.

And so, there is nothing crypto-separatist or sinister about Craig Scott's Private Member's Bill.

It may indeed, as many critics have suggested, be motivated by politics -- by the fact that the Bloc seeks simply to repeal the Clarity Act, something the NDP opposes, if it were not to be replaced by other rules. But who is in politics and is not motivated by political considerations?

'Separatism': A sincere, but misguided, option; or the devil incarnate?

 The problems the NDP has been encountering on this matter point to the huge gulf in perceptions between Quebec and the rest of Canada.

Even for most Quebec federalists, their sovereigntist friends, relatives and neighbours are people with whom they disagree, not blood enemies. And, of course, many Quebeckers have switched back and forth on the sovereignty question over the past four decades. They do not consider themselves to have been traitors for having even entertained the idea of a sovereign Quebec.

Outside of Quebec, however, the very notion of sovereignty has something of the status that Communism did for mainstream Americans in the 1950s. Quebec separatism is a dangerous, pernicious and almost evil threat, full stop; not a legitimate, if wrongheaded, option.

When the NDP caucus meets next week in Ottawa the MPs will no doubt have interesting tales to share of feedback from the grassroots.

The next Commons break is the week of March 10.

Then there will be the two week break in April, when both the Liberal Leadership vote and the NDP's Montreal policy convention will happen.

With the likelihood that at least some Liberal leadership candidates will try to make political hay out the "Unity" controversy, will the NDP feel obliged to re-visit the whole issue in Montreal?

At least one voice highly critical of the Craig Scott Bill, that of the right-of-centre National Citizens Coalition (NCC), nonetheless thinks the whole kerfuffle is not likely to last.

The NCC disagrees vigorously with the Unity Bill, but bemoans the fact that to most voters it is all probably a lot of "inside baseball."

"Sadly, English Canadian voters will view this legislation as a process story," writes the NCC's Brendan Stevens, "English Canadians are thinking about job security, pensions, and innumerable other issues that directly affect their lives ... This issue will fall into the trash bin of the 24 hour news cycle, and the story will be forgotten by the time the 2015 election is upon us."

On this, the NDP has to sincerely hope the organization Stephen Harper once headed is right. 


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