The Parti Québécois' "brain" figures he will not need to work very hard to persuade Quebeckers to leave Canada within the first mandate of a PQ government.
The federal government "is doing most of the work," explained veteran sovereigntist strategist Jean-François Lisée, now a first-time PQ candidate. "The evolution of Canada is more conducive to independence that at any time in the nationalist movement."
Sovereigntists now see Prime Minister Stephen Harper as their biggest asset in selling reluctant Quebeckers on separation. That suggests the PQ would move quickly once in power to take advantage of the Harper government's deep unpopularity in the province.
And no one besides PQ Leader Pauline Marois is likely to play as prominent a role in determining the party's referendum strategy or the timing of a sovereignty vote as Mr. Lisée. While the PQ is not committed to a referendum if it wins the Sept. 4 election, the 54-year-old former journalist is eager to hold one before the end of a first PQ term.
"I am optimistic that within the mandate, at some point, Quebeckers will want to have their own country," Mr. Lisée said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "But we've been optimistic before and fallen short."
He should know. As a top adviser to former PQ premiers Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard, Mr. Lisée helped devise the 1995 referendum strategy. After the Yes side narrowly lost that vote, he was behind Mr. Bouchard's attempts to foster the "winning conditions" for a third sovereignty referendum in the late 1990s.
If the conditions eluded sovereigntists then, Mr. Lisée now sees the climate as ripe for their emergence. And he is taking a front-and-centre role in creating them as a star candidate in the Montreal riding of Rosemont.
As a PQ frontbencher, Mr. Lisée, with his sharp mind and talent for repartee, would be a formidable foe for federalists.
Along with current MNA Bernard Drainville and former Radio-Canada reporter Pierre Duchesne, who is running in the PQ stronghold of Borduas, Mr. Lisée would form a front line of sovereigntist hawks who would likely push for a quick referendum. The trio could make life difficult for Ms. Marois, who, like every PQ leader before her, has struggled to unite the party's moderate and militant wings.
In addition to being a hard-liner on sovereignty, Mr. Lisée advocates means-testing all government programs and raising electricity rates to match Ontario's. But while the PQ program reprises neither idea, he insisted it "goes in the direction I want."
In his latest book, Mr. Lisée – a father of four and prolific writer – seeks to counter Quebec's image as an overtaxed economic also-ran, arguing that Quebeckers have a higher standard of living than Ontarians and "99 per cent" of Americans.
The book, whose title translates as How to Knock Out the Right in 15 Arguments, repudiates the idea that Quebec depends on Ottawa to get by. It asserts that Quebec receives a net total of about $5-billion annually in federal equalization payments, but "it is easy to imagine $5-billion in savings [for Quebec] by pulling out of federal programs that don't concern us – for example, the $8-billion spent by Ottawa in 2008 to save the Ontario automobile industry."
Mr. Lisée played down a suggestion made by Mr. Drainville, in a Globe interview last week, that a PQ government would seek to provoke a series of constitutional clashes with Ottawa to boost sovereigntist sentiment in Quebec.
But he made it clear that a PQ government would demand that Ottawa cede more powers to Quebec, arguing that Liberal Premier Jean Charest has shied away from doing so out of fear of playing into the hands of sovereigntists.
On Wednesday, Ms. Marois indicated one of the first demands of a PQ government would involve giving Quebec full control over the federal employment-insurance program in the province. "That's reasonable and we're going to ask for it," Mr. Lisée said.
The PQ would draw on the Harper government's 2006 resolution recognizing that "the Québécois form a nation within Canada" to buttress its case for additional powers.
A former foreign correspondent for Montreal daily La Presse, Mr. Lisée made his official conversion to the sovereigntist cause after the 1990 failure of the Meech Lake constitutional accord recognizing Quebec as a "distinct society." He wrote two books on Meech and the 1992 Charlottetown Accord that portrayed late Liberal premier Robert Bourassa as a "trickster" and "shipwrecker" who misled Quebeckers by promising to hold a sovereignty referendum if Meech died. After the accord's demise, support for separation shot well above 60 per cent.
While the tone of his books and blog for L'actualité magazine suggests someone eager to pick a fight with federalists, Mr. Lisée denied he seeks confrontation.
"You can create a new country with as much or as little broken glass as possible," he offered. "I am in the as-little-broken-glass-as-possible camp."