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Fractured tales of Parti Québécois ferment

Parties don't usually fracture when things are looking good; they split and fight when things look bad. But then there's the Parti Québécois.

The PQ faces a Liberal government that, until recently, looked done like dinner. Led by Jean Charest, the Liberals had been around for three terms and seemed set to succumb to the oldest peril in politics: time for a change.

At the recent PQ convention, 93 per cent of the delegates reaffirmed their support for their leader, Pauline Marois. In any other party, that kind of support would silence even the most redoubtable internal critic. But this is the Parti Québécois. Within weeks of her endorsement, all hell broke loose.

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Quebec's population has grown, but the PQ's vote has not. In the 2008 provincial election, the PQ received 600,000 fewer votes than in 1994. In the referendum of 1980, on a softball question about giving the government a mandate to negotiate something called "sovereignty association," the PQ option got 40 per cent.

Thirty years later, that level of support has not budged – which means secession as an idea is still alive but not necessarily well. The result is a split inside the PQ between those who are encouraged that support hasn't fallen and want a redoubled effort to sell secession and those who want to postpone the whole idea, at least for a while, because they don't think secession will happen any time soon.

Ms. Marois, like previous PQ leaders, was trying to juggle the aspirations of those who wanted a redoubled effort and those who argued that the timing of such efforts was all wrong. As in the past, divisions emerged about whether the PQ should promise to hold a referendum in the first mandate of a PQ government.

Again like previous leaders, Ms. Marois searched for a middle ground – no referendum but a series of provocative measures to take more power from Ottawa – only to disappoint at least some on both sides of the internal divide. Four hard-line secessionists walked out, blaming Ms. Marois for not being resolute enough in the pursuit of secession. This week, a young PQ caucus member quit because he didn't want a referendum at all.

Needless to say, this internal upheaval has provided endless fodder for reporting, commentary and analysis, all of which must deepen the ennui of Quebeckers who've been asked for three decades to chew on this same existential bone: Referendum or not? Secession or federalism? Distinct society or "nation"? For an increasing number of them, the bone has lost its taste.

As a result, there's ferment everywhere in Quebec, not just inside the PQ. The NDP's astonishing victory in the province in last month's federal election shows how loosely anchored Quebeckers are in their federal allegiances. Quebeckers rented the NDP for four years, and they could break the lease just as easily as they entered it.

While the PQ cannibalizes itself (again), and the Liberals spin their wheels, political interest (and intrigue) swirls around the possibility of a new political movement led by François Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister and businessman who defines himself as neither federalist nor secessionist. As such, he appeals to that instinct in Quebec summarized by the comedian who quipped that his fellow citizens want a separate Quebec within a united Canada.

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Mr. Legault, like NDP Leader Jack Layton, is not a fresh face. But his movement is new, just as the NDP was a new party for many Quebec voters. The Legault movement and the NDP represent "change," whatever that means. Mr. Legault is a centre-right, business-oriented politician who wants to attack Quebec's deficit and debt, and shake up public bureaucracies.

He and Mr. Layton, therefore, have nothing in common, except that they represent "change," albeit of quite different kinds. No matter. Both offer the chance to extricate Quebec, at least for a while, from the prison of the endless and increasingly sterile existential debate.

Mr. Legault has to create a party on its own, or make an arrangement with the province's third party, the Action démocratique du Québec. There seems little doubt in a province desiring "change" that opportunity beckons for a new political force to upset the PQ-Liberal duopoly.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More

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