Landry's surprise departure changes everything

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The excitement among sovereigntists in Quebec has been mounting for months. Who could doubt their great fortune? The only federalist provincial leader, Liberal Premier Jean Charest, was running third in popularity behind the sovereigntists PQ, and the semi-sovereigntist ADQ forces of Mario Dumont.

If that were not enough, the hapless Liberals in Ottawa were set to record the worst election result ever in Quebec for a sitting Liberal prime minister in his home province. And, the official opposition Conservatives in Ottawa were without any Quebec support, and had no hope of participating effectively in an eventual sovereignty referendum. Yet the Conservatives looked ready to become the largest party in the House of Commons following the next election.

The excitement was so great that something had to give, and it was the two-step strategy of PQ leader Bernard Landry: first a referendum to give his government the mandate to prepare the transition to sovereignty, then the referendum to confirm it.

When Landry stepped down at the PQ convention this past weekend his strategy went with him.

Working in the background at the gatherings was former PQ leader Jacques Parizeau and his hard-core PQ supporters. Remember the lobster trap analogy Parizeau let slip in the last referendum? How the people would vote “yes,” and that would be it, caught like a lobster in a trap.

For the Parizeau faction, without the citizenry understanding entirely what they were voting for, the upcoming election victory itself would give the PQ the mandate to prepare for sovereignty.

The follow-up referendum would be to approve the constitution of an independent Quebec. Any tidying up with Ottawa could happen later, once the Canadian constitution had been replaced by the Quebec constitution.

For months leading up to last weekend's PQ convention, Bernard Landry has been lobbying for support for his position. He faced no open opposition from potential leadership rivals Pauline Marois, François Legault or Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe.

The Landry strategy was first to defeat Paul Martin in Quebec and see how far the federal Liberals would fall. For this he needed Gilles Duceppe and the Bloc to be effective in exploiting the Liberal weakness.

Since Duceppe was doing his job, the likely outcome was for the Liberals to change leaders in order to rally and defeat the Conservatives. The next Liberal leader would not come from Quebec. With neither party represented in Quebec or able to field someone who could play a significant role in defending the place of Quebec in a federal Canada, the door would be open for the sovereigntists to achieve their goal.

The Landry surprise departure — “76 per cent is not enough” (think about that for a moment, before a referendum campaign) “I am stepping down” — shines the lights towards the PQ and away from the Charest Liberals and the Martin Liberals.

One can hope the provincial Liberals will eject the right-wing Charest. He has managed to alienate students with his attempts to withdraw student grants, parents with his increased support for privatized child care and his cuts in funding to established public child care, and the public in general with his unwillingness to accommodate views that do not fit with the neo-conservative philosophy he has taken to his breast, as if it were a newborn child.

The Ottawa scene just got more interesting. Duceppe was ready to go into an election, regardless of the issues raised. His mostly social democratic troops voted against an NDP-driven budget because of the need to punish the Liberals. The Conservative/Bloc election alliance would be less secure should Duceppe leave Parliament to contest the PQ leadership. If Duceppe decides to jump ship he can hardly stick around for the federal election. He must either say he is going, or say he is staying.

The PQ leadership race will take place in full view with a lot of familiar issues likely to surface, such as the association with Ottawa versus the independent state debate. Without Duceppe, the split likely to emerge between François Legault and Pauline Marois, would give a new provincial Liberal leader something to exploit later. While Duceppe has been in Ottawa for 15 years he has no Quebec government experience, and as leader might well falter under the close scrutiny given a potential premier.

Some of the excitement in the PQ ranks is likely to be dissipated in a divisive leadership race, the first in 20 years. Without a René Lévesque, Jacques Parizeau or Lucien Bouchard, the eventual winner will nonetheless be compared to the illustrious predecessors. That comparison hurt Bernard Landry who was nonetheless a trusted, privileged associate of each of those leaders. In fact, Landry had the intellectual ability of the others, just not the charisma.

The next PQ leader is not expected to have the wisdom of Solomon, or the leadership ability of Moses — only the ability to do what the others could not do: Make Quebec a sovereign country. Without the expected “co-operation” from the provincial Liberals and the Federal Parliament that will be very difficult to achieve.

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