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Quebec election is fraught with hazards for the federal parties

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When there is a good chance that a Quebec election will produce a majority for a party whose ultimate goal is to take Quebec out of the Canadian federation, that has major implications for all federal parties.

The campaign in Quebec has just started and even if the Parti Québecois leads in all the polls (and by a huge margin among francophone voters), as Yogi Berra put it: it ain't over 'till it's over.

Without presupposing the outcome based on current polls, the federal parties will all be watching how things unfold in Quebec very closely.

The conventional wisdom in Ottawa seems to be that a Parti Québecois victory will be good for Trudeau and his federal Liberals and bad for Mulcair and the NDP.

For the Conservatives -- well they have only five seats in Quebec now, and don't look poised to make gains, at this stage. The election result would likely be a wash for Harper and his team, whoever wins.

Deal on job training a smart move by Kenney

Mind you, it is significant that Harper's Employment Minister Jason Kenney reached a last minute deal with the Marois government in Quebec on job training. That deal leaves Quebec's own programs in place, with the existing level of federal funding.

The Quebec deal comes on the heels of agreements with all the other provinces and territories. The provinces had, until very recently, considered the Harper government's Canada Jobs Grant an ill-conceived intrusion on their turf. In making significant compromises, Kenney has shown himself to be deft and flexible in managing relations with the provinces.

With Quebec, in particular, the job training agreement takes one irritant out of the coming debate on Quebec's place in (or out) of the federation. Considering how much the Harper government has done to annoy Quebec opinion -- from dropping out of Kyoto, to abolishing the gun registry to mandatory minimum sentences -- those who cheer for the federalist side can give at least one cheer for Kenney's willingness to bend and make a deal.

Trudeau's Liberals have nowhere to go but up in Quebec

So much for the governing Conservatives.

It is the other two parties who have serious ambitions in Quebec.

The NDP now holds the lion's share of Quebec seats, and so has the most to lose. And what complicates matters is that Mulcair's party has virtually all the seats in the predominantly francophone parts of Quebec where the Parti Québécois stands to do very well, plus a chunk of seats where the Quebec Liberals are strong.

There are a lot of PQ voters, all over Quebec, who also voted NDP last time, most for the first time ever.

At the same time, in 2011 the NDP was almost as successful in Quebec seats with significant non-francophone populations, such as NDG-Lachine in the city of Montreal and Pierrefonds-Dollard on Montreal's West Island.

The Liberals used to win most of those seats, even when they won few others.

To win non-francophone Quebeckers next time Justin Trudeau probably does not have to do much more than be who he is: the son of Pierre-Elliott Trudeau, who is still a near saint to a great many non-francophone Quebeckers.

Last election was a near disaster for the federal Liberals in Quebec. They only won seven seats, in and around Montreal, all in ridings with very high proportions of non-francophones.

Next time, with Trudeau as leader and a menacing Parti Québecois in power in Quebec City, they can reasonably aspire to take somewhere between a dozen to 20 similar seats, almost all from the NDP.

Francophone seats tell their own story

However, things are more complicated in the other 40 to 50 federal seats in Quebec, those with large francophone majorities.

Federal polling numbers that show Trudeau's Liberals leading in Quebec don't always take into account that while their lead might be huge among non-francophones (up to 70 per cent), they are almost certainly trailing among francophones.

In any case, to win somewhere upward of 25 seats in Quebec would be a big improvement for the Liberals over last time.

The NDP's Mulcair has a bigger challenge and more to defend. He has the job of portraying himself as, at once, a defender of Quebec's interests in Ottawa and a rival to Trudeau and Harper as the true "Captain Canada."

Arguably, the NDP leader can do both, without contradicting himself; but it will take political deftness.

Since becoming the Official Opposition the NDP has quite consistently pushed back against all of the Harper government's initiatives that Quebeckers do not like one bit. See above for a short list -- to which one could add a trade deal with Europe that threatens to harm Quebec's artisanal cheese producers and cuts to the CBC, which in its French language incarnation, Radio-Canada, has a large and loyal audience in Quebec.

The NDP has done this pushing back much more consistently and rigorously than have the third party Liberals, which should stand Mulcair's team in good stead with francophone voters (if they have been paying any attention).

At the same time, Mulcair himself is an unabashed, unambiguous and deeply committed federalist. He has not talked about that much since becoming Leader of the Opposition, but is starting to do so of late, most recently in an interview last weekend with the CBC's Evan Solomon.

Few English Canadians know that Mulcair worked, for a number of years, for the main Quebec Anglo rights organization, Alliance Quebec. Nor do they know that hardcore Parti Québécois activists regarded the current NDP Leader as a ferocious adversary in his days as a Quebec Liberal. He was known to have a take-no-prisoners approach in debates with separatists.

NDP alternative to Clarity is a tough response to threat of separatism

Oddly, there is an English Canadian impression that Mulcair is some kind of soft nationalist who might even be vaguely sympathetic to the sovereigntist cause. That (false) impression is nourished by the NDP's commitment to accepting a 50 per cent plus one result in a sovereignty referendum.

The fact is, as we have written here in this space before, that what the NDP proposes as an alternative to the federal Clarity Act is not in any way more accommodating to separatism than that Act itself.

One member of the NDP Quebec caucus deemed his own party's proposal to be such an intrusion into Quebec's rights that he walked across to the Bloc Québecois. What that MP found most objectionable was that the NDP's proposal would have the federal government "interfere" in the referendum process at a much earlier stage than does the Clarity Act.

Under Clarity, the federal government only gets involved after there is a referendum vote. The federal Parliament then meets to decide whether the question was sufficiently clear and whether the majority (assuming there was a majority or yes) was sufficient to be taken seriously.

At that stage, in the real world, it would be well-nigh impossible for any responsible federal government to simply balk at Quebec and refuse to negotiate anything -- whatever the margin of victory and however murky the question may have been.

Canada would be in a major crisis. For the sake of the Canadian dollar and economy in general, any federal government in its right mind would know it had to sit down with the Quebec government and try to work things out, as adults. To do anything else would be grossly irresponsible and very dangerous.

The NDP proposal seeks to head off that sort of crisis by mandating the federal government to intervene as soon as a Quebec government articulates a referendum question.

At that stage, if the federal government considers the question to be deliberately misleading or otherwise problematic, it refers the matter to the Quebec Court of Appeal, whose judges are federally appointed.

In other words, the NDP would have the federal government push back against a separatist Quebec government that was trying to stack the decks in its own favour long before any referendum campaign even got under way.

In that context, the 50 per cent plus one position does not seem "soft on separatism" after all. It seems firm, realistic and reasonable.

Whether or not Mulcair and his team can make that case to English Canadians is an open question.

Most Quebeckers see the so-called "national question" as complex and nuanced, and their own personal choices as equally matters of shades of grey, not black and white. It was the revered Quebec comedian Yvon Deschamps who, many years ago, said he wanted an "independent Quebec in a strong and united Canada."

Living in a paradox does not feel uncomfortable to a great many Quebeckers.

To most English Canadians, however, the whole business is black and white -- and extremely tiresome. The reality is that they may not be willing to examine the details of what the NDP actually proposes as a strategy to deal with a possible referendum on separation.

That strategy poses a major communications challenge for the party currently in Official Opposition position.

And that challenge is doubly complicated by the fact that the NDP still wants to be respected by Quebec francophones as the party that has fought, on major policy issues, for the interests and views of Quebec.


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