Pauline Marois relaunches PQ, Harper helps

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Pauline Marois has emerged as the winner of the internal wars that have beset the Parti Québécois. Her leadership went uncontested at the recent PQ National Council meeting. Her principal rival, former Bloc leader, Gilles Duceppe has removed himself from active politics following a leak to La Presse, citing misappropriation by the Bloc of parliamentary funds for partisan purposes.

For Pierre Dubuc, a militant left-wing sovereignist, writing in L'Aut'Journal, the most important news is that Marois has corrected the mistakes that contributed to her troubles.

The PQ had decided to recruit voter support in Quebec City, and surrounding areas from the right-wing ADQ. That explained why it backed the Quebecor bid for a special arena deal to house the Quebec Nordiques (and help its bid to return to the NHL). Dropping its principled opposition to sweetheart construction deals like the one with Quebecor led to defections from the PQ caucus.

The ADQ recently wound up its activities. It merged with the CAQ (Coalition for the Future of Quebec) led by former PQ minister François Legault. The CAQ pledged to take discussion of the national question (sovereignty or independence) off the table for 10 years if elected, which puts them on the other side of the national question from the PQ. This greatly irritates Premier Jean Charest who wants Legault to be considered a sovereignist, and leaves Marois free to court traditional nationalist voters.

While off trying to persuade right-leaning voters that the PQ could accommodate their concerns, Marois and her troops were losing ground on progressive issues to Québec Solidaire. Many trade unionists, and social movement activists want to see increased attention to the "social question" from Marois, who has been preoccupied with holding the support of the vocal independence wing of the PQ, to counter Legault and the neo-liberalism of the CAQ.

While the reduction of the Bloc to a small parliamentary rump was a blow to the Quebec sovereignist movement, the absence of a strong Bloc leader in Ottawa has also given Marois more reason (and more room on the stage) to attack Stephen Harper. Contesting Harper lets Marois strengthen her appeal with progressives on socio-economic policies, and draw a picture for nationalists of Canada as a bad bargain for Quebec, and independence as a better option for the future. By attacking Harper, she speaks to both between the social wing and the nationalist wing of the PQ.

With an election expected as early as this spring, Pauline Marois and the sovereignist movement can thank Stephen Harper for putting the PQ back in the running to form the next government. Since winning his majority (while losing a few seats in Quebec) the Canadian prime minister has been deliberately provocative in his dealings with Quebec. Harper has seen fit to appoint unilingual individuals to key posts such as Auditor General of Canada, or Supreme Court Justice; pass over Quebec for ship-building contracts; pull out of the Kyoto accord despite protests from the Quebec government; promote the British Crown as a symbol of national unity; and most recently close the Services Canada centre in Rimouski, despite a large backlog of EI claims in Quebec.

Harper calculates that a revival of the Bloc is the best -- and maybe only way -- to defeat NDP MPs. The Liberal party is still damaged goods in Francophone Quebec. Harper has not given up on the province, but for the time being he limits his Conservative largesse to Quebec, as a way of punishing the province for not voting for his party.

Despite his calculated insults to Quebec, Harper knows it remains key to his holding power. Stephen Harper is very worried that if he fails to hold his majority in the election expected in October 2015, say, though a loss of Ontario seats, he will be defeated in the House of Commons by the combined forces of the NDP, and the Liberals. Having lost the confidence of the House of Commons, he would be forced to resign as prime minister, opening the door to an NDP-Liberal coalition government.

A resurgent Bloc is a way -- the only way other than the Conservatives winning Quebec themselves -- for Harper to forestall a coalition. Each seat won by the Bloc in Quebec is as good as a win for the Conservatives, since it represents one less seat for the coalition. Under no circumstances could the Bloc be part of a coalition, or could a NDP-Liberal coalition be formed without controlling more than 50 percent of the seats in the House.

Harper may well fail in his attempt to revive the Bloc. He has certainly succeeded in strengthening Pauline Marois and the PQ. His tough tactics do ensure that the Quebec national question stays alive as a political issue, not just in Quebec, but in Canada outside Quebec as well.

Duncan Cameron is the president of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

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