Quebec Premier Pauline Marois will be getting some tips on the mechanics of holding a referendum on sovereignty Tuesday even as her government insists it is not working toward a vote on the issue.
It’s all part of a careful balancing act Ms. Marois has tried to strike during her trip to Europe this week, which has included stops in London and Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum. On the one hand, she has played down Quebec independence, telling a business crowd in London on Monday that there is no referendum in sight and that the province is open for business. On the other hand, she will hold a high-profile meeting on Tuesday with Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond to discuss his government’s plan to hold a referendum on sovereignty next year.
Ms. Marois told reporters Monday that she is particularly keen to know how Mr. Salmond managed to get an agreement from the British government to hold the referendum. Under a deal reached in October between Mr. Salmond and Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain has given Scotland the power to fix a date for the vote, set the question and determine campaign rules, including spending limits. If Scots vote Yes, Mr. Salmond has said he expects to negotiate terms of the separation, including division of debt, over the next 18 months.
“I can ask the question how he succeeded to have an agreement with Mr. Cameron,” Ms. Marois said after a speech to the Canada-U.K. Chamber of Commerce. “And that is interesting because I’ve seen there is a kind of respect of each partner, and … if I understand what I saw, Mr. Cameron said ‘Okay, if you want to ask the question, could we have an agreement on this question.’ I don’t think that could be possible in Canada.”
The Clarity Act, passed by the Canadian Parliament in 2000, makes a similar deal difficult to strike. The legislation says secession can occur only through constitutional reform, not a simple vote. It also puts restrictions on the question that can be asked in a referendum and how large a majority is required for a Yes vote.
Ms. Marois is also interested in Mr. Salmond’s plan to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 for the referendum. The Parti Québécois has endorsed the idea of moving the provincial voting age to 16 but that was not part of the party’s platform during the last election. When asked whether she would like to drop the age for a referendum on sovereignty, she replied: “Until now that is not the case, but maybe one day.”
The PQ had debated the issue of lowering the voting age on several occasions in the past but never adopted a formal proposal to include it in the party program. That changed in January, 2012, when delegates at a party meeting voted to include the proposal in the party program that had been adopted at a PQ convention the previous year.
A year ago Ms. Marois was facing dissent within her ranks and felt the need to acquiesce to those demanding changes to the way politics was practised in Quebec. She bowed to the demands but refused to include the proposal to lower the voting age in the party’s platform that was adopted at the outset of last summer’s election campaign.
A spokesperson for Ms. Marois said lowering the voting age may become part of the party platform when the next election is called.
The Quebec Liberals as well as the Coalition Avenir Québec party have refused to embrace the idea of lowering the voting age.
There was no talk of Mr. Salmond or the trip to Scotland during Ms. Marois’s speech to the crowd of roughly 200 business people. Instead, she only briefly mentioned sovereignty, saying that she hopes that one day Quebec “will be a part of the concert of nations.”
But she added: “This, of course, is an internal debate and a decision regarding Quebec independence will be made only when Quebeckers are ready.”
The rest of her remarks dwelled on encouraging foreign investment in Quebec. Afterward she told reporters that she did not think foreign investors have been scared off by the PQ election or renewed talk of separatism.
“I don’t think so because I said to the business people who were there today, ‘We want to be a nation, we want to be at the concert of nations, but we will do that when Quebeckers will want to choose their destiny.’ That will be by democratic way which is a referendum but now that it not the case.”
As for Scotland, although both Ms. Marois and Mr. Salmond are long-time sovereigntists, they appear to have little in common. Both have insisted they have nothing to teach or learn from the other and Mr. Salmond, who leads the Scottish National Party, even seemed cool when asked recently about Ms. Marois’s visit. He spoke about Scotland’s close ties to Canada and added that he draws no parallels from Quebec. “We look at the Scottish case and apply the universal principles [of self-determination] to Scotland as opposed to saying Scotland is identical to any other country,” he told a gathering of foreign reporters this month.
Ironically Mr. Salmond is running into many of the same issues that have plagued Quebec’s two referendums. The most serious for him is a lack of solid support for the idea. Polls show less than a third of Scots support a Yes vote and the numbers have been falling. Mr. Salmond is also facing controversy over the question he wants to pose in the referendum, “Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?”
Britain’s Electoral Commission, which will oversee the voting, is expected to rule this week that Mr. Salmond’s proposed question is biased. Instead, the commission is expected to prefer: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The commission was asked to review the issue and its ruling is only advisory. However, Mr. Salmond is already feeling pressure to change the question or face criticism that the referendum was fixed.
For her part, Ms. Marois indicated that she also has no advice for Mr. Salmond. “Scotland is different. Quebec is different,” she told reporters Monday.
With a report from
Rhéal Séguin in Quebec