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He’s respected in Quebec, a federalist and loves a good fight. Will NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair be called upon to make the case for Canada if the PQ wins? (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)
He’s respected in Quebec, a federalist and loves a good fight. Will NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair be called upon to make the case for Canada if the PQ wins? (BLAIR GABLE/REUTERS)

John Ibbitson

Why Harper might need Mulcair to keep the country together Add to ...

The Harper government is quietly but actively preparing for the arrival of a separatist government in Quebec after Sept. 4.

Plan A is already in place. The problem is with Plan B. Thus far there isn’t much of one. But it just might involve Thomas Mulcair.

Officially, the Conservatives are remaining strictly neutral in the Quebec election. Unofficially, like almost everyone else outside Quebec, they are hoping for any result other than victory by the Parti Québécois.

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But with PQ Leader Pauline Marois currently leading in the polls, the possibility of her becoming premier must be faced. Here is how Ottawa plans to face it, based on conversations with officials who are not authorized to speak publicly.

The PQ says that if it forms a government, it will make a series of demands: Ottawa must hand over complete control of employment insurance, communications policy (so Quebec would have its own version of the CRTC) and cultural programs.

To these and any other demands Stephen Harper will just say no. The Prime Minister will declare that he has no mandate from the Canadian people to negotiate with a separatist government over a series of measures that would lead to the slow-motion breakup of the country.

He will say as well that the Conservative government remains focused on the economy: on creating jobs, improving productivity, expanding trade and eliminating the deficit. He will urge the government in Quebec to do likewise. This is Plan A.

The Conservatives believe Plan A will prove sufficient. Whoever forms the next government in Quebec will face serious challenges: All parties are making lavish spending promises, even as the province’s debt becomes increasingly unsustainable.

The sovereigntist leadership is largely geriatric and disconnected from younger Quebeckers, who worry more about getting and keeping a job than debating secession. Even if the PQ does win the election, its sovereigntist aspirations will be defensive and, the Tories hope, discredited in the eyes of most Quebeckers.

Besides, Mr. Harper has no choice. Conservative supporters would revolt and abandon the party if the Prime Minister became embroiled in negotiations with a separatist government over Quebec’s place in the federation.

There is no appetite among the Canadian public outside Quebec for reopening the constitutional question. The Tories believe they have the right strategy for confronting the PQ; they also know it’s the only strategy the rest of the country would accept.

But the government also realizes that a referendum could come nonetheless; a Premier Marois could use Ottawa’s refusal to negotiate as the springboard for one. If so, the Conservatives realize they would be challenged to respond with a Plan B.

The party has only five MPs in Quebec, none of them stellar. Mr. Harper is not popular in the province, because of his promotion of the Queen, cuts to funding for Radio-Canada, scrapping of the gun registry, abandonment of the Kyoto accord … it goes on.

There is no leader of stature who could make the case for Canada to Quebeckers from within the ranks of the Conservative Party.

But the NDP has 58 Quebec MPs. Mr. Mulcair has deep roots in the province, served in Jean Charest’s cabinet, and loves a good fight.

At all costs, the Tories want to prevent the revival of the Liberal Party in Quebec. If Justin Trudeau were to become Liberal Leader, they would not want to see him emerging as the next generation’s champion of federalism in French Canada, and would do nothing to encourage him in that role.

But, lacking any other alternative, they might acquiesce in having Mr. Mulcair assume the mantle. After all, Stephen Harper’s implicit aim is to see Canadian politics evolve into a two-party system, with the Conservatives on the right facing a single party on the left.

For the Tories, looking to Tom Mulcair is not a great Plan B. But at the moment, it’s all they’ve got.

Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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