What’s behind the PQ turmoil?

06.07.11

The sudden defection of four high-profile Parti Quebecois MNAs, including Louise Beaudoin, has everyone asking questions, and has Pauline Marois scrambling to defend her leadership of a party that can only be characterized as being in the midst of a full-scale crisis.

And everyone is asking, what the hell happened? How could a party that had a commanding lead in the polls, whose leader won a 93% confidence vote less than two months ago, and who most pundits predicted had a virtual lock on winning the next provincial election, be self-destructing like this?

The ostensible catalyst – a vote on a private member’s bill that would have guaranteed naming rights for a new arena in a bid to attract an NHL team back to Quebec City – was merely the trigger; the ingredients of this turmoil have been marinating much longer than that. That vote has been shelved now anyway, though it’s entirely beside the point.

So what happened in a mere two months?

Well, the NDP happened, for one thing. The media wanted to claim that the Layton sweep of Quebec – and the Bloc Quebecois self-destruction that accompanied it – meant that Quebecers had moved past sovereignty, and were embracing their role as part of a united Canada. Bloggers claimed that sovereignty is dead in Quebec.

Those of us who live here know different. We know that the NDP win here, coupled with the Tory win just about everywhere else, actually led to an increase in support for sovereignty in the aftermath of an election that made us feel more alienated from the rest of Canada than ever.

And the defecting MNAs from the PQ know it too. They see the tide turning, and they’re getting impatient. They’re pushing for a sea change. No more “winning conditions”, no more of Marois’s strategy – so eagerly backed just two short months ago – of putting referendum timing on the back burner and concentrating on winning elections and on governing. They don’t want to govern a province; they want a country. And they feel like fifteen years since the squeaker referendum of 1995 is fifteen years too many.

This position is being made clear by Jean-Martin Aussant, the fourth PQ member to defect and the most openly blunt about his reasons:

“I’m here to work on sovereignty. And I don’t think she’s the one Quebecers will want to follow, at a very high rate, towards sovereignty,” Aussant told a news conference.

“That’s a very cruel statement. It’s a hard one to say. It’s probably a hard one to hear, from them, but that’s what I think.”

And now former Premier Bernard Landry is speaking out, too:

Landry says the PQ has become too complacent and its members, who want a more strident pursuit of the party’s raison d’etre, are now pushing back.

“There are other things (causing this),” Landry told Radio-Canada on Tuesday. He said the pursuit of power should take a back seat to principles — like the quest for independence.

Such a move would represent a strategic shift for a party which, for more than 15 years, has placed its emphasis on governing or winning government — and has simply expressed its hope to hold a vote on independence eventually, whenever the conditions are right.

“Rene Levesque did not found this party to govern the province of Quebec,” Landry said Tuesday. “The obsession should be public service — not taking power. It’s better to take power later — but to take it with dignity.”

The Pequistes who are dialing up the sovereignty-now talk aren’t doing so off the cuff. They’re seeing the same things we are; hearing the same conversations, feeling the same winds in the air. They’re seeing how Stephen Harper in power and Jack Layton in opposition is making many Quebec soft nationalists re-evaluate just how Canadian they feel after all. And they feel like it’s time to strike while the iron is hot.

On the surface, the self-destruction of one sovereignty party and the turmoil of the other would be good news for federalism. Under the surface, it’s anything but.

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