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The NDP has many flaws but being 'soft on separatism' is not one of them

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There are by-elections next week in Montreal and Toronto where the Conservatives are also-rans, and the battle is between the Liberals and the NDP.

The NDP candidates are definitely the underdogs. The two seats, Toronto Centre and Bourassa, have been happily Liberal of late, and polls show the Liberals leading in both.

Maybe that’s why the NDP has decided to play a bit of unaccustomed hardball this time.

The Party has attacked the Bourassa Liberal candidate, Emmanuel Dubourg, for taking his $100,000 allowance as a departing Member of the Quebec National Assembly, even though he was only elected provincially a bit more than a year ago.

And the NDP says the star Liberal candidate in Toronto Centre, author and journalist Chrystia Freeland, is, like former Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, out of touch with Canada, having lived and worked out of the country for many years.

The Liberals are not exactly turning the other cheek.

They have some harsh things of their own to say about the NDP.

Liberals claim the Toronto Centre candidate, prolific writer Linda McQuaig, and Party Leader Tom Mulcair disagree on increasing taxes on the über-wealthy and on Middle East policy.

And Justin Trudeau’s Party may have a point, in both cases -- although McQuaig has been careful not to freelance on touchy policy issues during the campaign.

One of the main Liberal attack lines, however, isn’t focused on any candidate. It targets Leader Tom Mulcair and the NDP as a whole.

This attack is a version of that old "dangerous to old national unity" line.

The Liberals say the NDP "panders to separatists" because Tom Mulcair’s Party would be willing to allow the country to split on a 50 per cent plus one vote in a referendum.

That is a gross distortion of the NDP’s position, which, in certain respects, is actually tougher on the separatists than the Chrétien era Clarity Bill.

The NDP outlined its "what if" position on a Quebec sovereignty referendum early this year, but the Party has not done a splendid job of defending or explaining it.

In this space, we tried to deconstruct and analyze the NDP’s policy on "clear questions and clear majorities" last February.

Here is an edited version of what we said then.

You decide if the NDP’s policy is anything like the Liberal caricature of "breaking up the country on one vote."

The federal government would propose actual wording for a question

Chrétien’s Clarity Act was itself an outcome of a 1997 Supreme Court decision on Quebec's right to secede.

That Court decision said the Quebec people have the right to decide, via referendum, on their place in or out of confederation, as long as the referendum question is clear and there is a clear majority in favour.

The Clarity Act enshrined those principles in law, without ever setting out a "number" -- without defining what would constitute a clear majority.

Would that be 51 per cent, 55 per cent, 60 per cent, or 75 per cent? The Clarity Act is entirely unclear on that point.

The NDP’s proposal first affirms that the Parliament of Canada recognized, in 2006, that the Québecois form a "nation within a united Canada" -- a nation that has the right to "democratically decide its own future."

It then lays out rather clear ground rules.

The Party states first of all that the Canadian government would have the duty to decide -- long before any referendum vote were held -- whether the question "clearly set out the constitutional change being sought."

Many Quebec nationalists consider this aspect of NDP policy to be a very aggressive interference in Quebec’s right to decide its own future. In fact, one Quebec NDP MP quit the Party because of this policy plank, and joined the Bloc Québecois.

The NDP policy on "the question" then goes even further, and suggests two specific examples of questions that the Government of Canada could accept as being clear:

"Should Quebec become a sovereign country?" and "Should Quebec separate from Canada and become a sovereign country?"

You can't get much clearer than that. Those questions are a long way from the laborious and confusing muddle of a question Quebec voters faced in the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

If Quebec wanted to choose other referendum language, the NDP says, the federal government would have to agree to it.

And if the feds did not believe a Quebec government referendum question was sufficiently clear and transparent, the Canadian government would then immediately refer the matter to the Quebec Court of Appeal -- whose members are appointed by the Canadian Prime Minister.

In the end, the NDP does say that if the question is clear, if there are no irregularities in any aspect of the vote, and if a majority of "valid votes are cast in favour of the proposed change," then -- and only then -- would the Canadian government "enter into negotiations with the Quebec government."

Again, all such a referendum "victory" would get for the Quebec government is negotiations. There would be no automatic recognition of Quebec as a separate country on the Quebec government’s unilateral terms.

A moderate and politically realistic proposal

There you have it: hardly an open invitation to separate from Canada, with no consequences.

In fact, the NDP only proposes legislatively recognizing what would, in fact, almost certainly happen in the event of a yes vote on separation, however narrow the margin of victory.

The Government of Canada would do its duty and enter into talks with the Quebec government.

The alternative might very well be chaos, damaging to the Canadian economy and Canada's political stability.

Seen this way, the NDP’s policy is merely statement of democratic, constitutional principle.

It could hardly be categorized as "soft-on-separatism." Indeed, for the most part, neither federalists nor separatists in Quebec see Mulcair’s NDP as being squishy on the sovereignty issue. Mulcair, after all, was a cabinet minister in Jean Charest’s federalist Quebec government, worked for the Quebec anglophone rights organization Alliance Quebec, and fought on the "no" side in two referendums.

If anything, the NDP’s clear statement of the need for acceptable, unambiguous language in a referendum question is almost a gauntlet thrown at the feet of the sovereignty movement.

Don't try to sugar-coat your objective in confusing and devious language that evokes undefined "agreements" and an ongoing "association with Canada," as you did in two previous referendums, the NDP is telling Quebec Premier Pauline Marois’ Parti Québecois.

Indeed, if the Quebec government were to express itself as bluntly as the NDP says it should, there is very little chance it could ever get anywhere near even a simple majority, in a fair vote.

Of course, Pauline Marois has her ace-in-the-hole: a Harper federal government that seems willing to do as much as it can to alienate Quebeckers.

The separatists are hoping that works for them.

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