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Does NDP pose more of a threat to national unity than the Bloc?

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

The obvious, instinctive reaction is to cheer for Jack Layton - if not nationally, then in the province where he's most caught fire.

Quebeckers have long parked their votes with the Bloc Québécois - a party that by its nature has no interest in building a better country. Mr. Layton's NDP, which has seemingly come out of nowhere to lead the Bloc in popular support, offers the prospect of more constructive representation and more thoughtful consideration of Quebec's role within Canada.

And any New Democrat who defeats a Bloquiste represents one fewer separatist earning a comfortable living in the federal Parliament, which has an understandable appeal to most Canadians.

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But before getting out the pompoms, Mr. Layton's message in recent days raises an uncomfortable question: Could the federalist party pose more of a threat to national unity than the sovereigntist one?

To create the "winning conditions" that sovereigntists have long been seeking, and that will be in demand if the Parti Québécois defeats Jean Charest's Liberals in the next provincial election, requires a strong sense of grievance. The oui side came so close to victory in the 1995 referendum largely because of the perception that Quebec's interests had been rejected by the rest of Canada, through the defeats of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. But as of now, there's nothing nearly so galvanizing in play.

For sovereigntists, it's difficult to change that on their own. The PQ plans to try, with a stridently nationalist agenda aimed at provoking Ottawa. But Bloc MPs can make no serious claim to wanting to make federalism work, so it's hard for them to help convey and spread a sense of disillusionment. Nor can they easily entice the federal government to launch into constitutional talks, of the sort that have previously ended in heartbreak, because no prime minister would be under any illusion that he or she could make them happy.

History suggests, however, that self-identified federalists are a different story. In the 1980s, Brian Mulroney built a coalition with soft nationalists, then tried to appease them. His reward was a chunk of his caucus breaking off to form the Bloc, a gesture with much more impact than anything the party they formed could do today. Their revolt, along with the frustration of the federalist provincial government of the day, helped set in motion the near-miss in 1995.

Since then, federal governments have stepped more carefully. Jean Chrétien's Liberals went nowhere near constitutional talks, and took the opposite tack by introducing the Clarity Act. (That they also created all kinds of bad will with the sponsorship program is a different matter.) Paul Martin was more ambiguous - making former Bloc MP Jean Lapierre his Quebec lieutenant, and embracing "asymmetrical federalism" in a way Mr. Chrétien didn't. But after dabbling with soft nationalism - giving the Québécois a "nation within Canada" designation, and engaging in a flirtation with Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec - Stephen Harper has shifted back a little closer to where Mr. Chrétien was.

It remains highly unlikely that Mr. Layton will lead the government after May 2, but seat gains in Quebec and elsewhere could give him a big hand in shaping it. So it bears noting that there are a few shades of Mr. Mulroney's approach in what he's doing to win over Quebec.

The NDP has long had a commitment to provincial autonomy for Quebec that seems at odds with its interventionist message in the rest of the country. But Mr. Layton isn't just promising not to impose federal programs. He backs extending Bill 101, Quebec's controversial language legislation, into federally regulated workplaces. He is non-committal on the Clarity Act. He doesn't want to add more seats in the House of Commons for underrepresented provinces such as Ontario and Alberta, without also adding more seats for Quebec so that it remains overrepresented.

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Then there's the Constitution, which became the topic of the day on Tuesday. Mr. Layton did not go quite as far on the subject as some of his opponents claimed; indeed, he made clear he doesn't consider it an "immediate issue." But he also called it a "historic problem" that Quebec did not sign on, and said he wants to create "winning conditions" so that talks can be reopened when there's a "reasonable chance of success."

It may be that Mr. Layton has said just enough to keep his new Quebec supporters happy, without anyone seriously believing that he'll have to follow up in the foreseeable future. It should also be said that history does not always repeat itself, and Mr. Layton is not Mr. Mulroney. Perhaps, from less of a position of power, he will continue to navigate his way through Quebec without the same sorts of rifts emerging.

But it may also be that he's paving the way for future headaches.

If the NDP winds up with a significant soft nationalist contingent within its own caucus, could keeping it happy be part of any agreements reached with other parties in a minority Parliament? If those MPs get frustrated, could it lead to a stagy (if smaller-scale) split of the sort that Mr. Mulroney's Tories endured? And if neither of those things happens in the short term, could the NDP's Quebec surge persuade other leaders to adopt Mr. Layton's approach in the next campaign, resulting in a sort of bidding war?

None of this is to suggest that Mr. Layton's success in Quebec should be chalked up just to his approach to federalism. He has worked diligently over the past several elections to slowly build an NDP brand that was once almost non-existent there. No doubt there are many Quebeckers looking for an alternative to the Bloc, and Mr. Layton's considerable personal charm has combined with his party's left-of-centre ideology to help provide them with one.

All things being equal, having one of the national parties more competitive in Quebec might well be preferable to having the Bloc continue to tie up so many seats. But there are few pure good-news stories in politics. And there are good reasons to believe this one is something more complicated.

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