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Lawrence Martin

The Péquistes don’t scare Canada now Add to ...

It’s a not such a big deal this time. Over the past half-century, there have been many Quebec elections fraught with tension, the unity of the country in jeopardy. But not this one.

The campaign that got under way Wednesday morning could well result in a victory by the Parti Québécois. The sovereignist party hasn’t won in almost a decade. It’s overdue.

But in the event it happens, it doesn’t mean we’re in for unrest. The federation is not about to crumble. The Péquistes’ bark is worse than their bite. Chances are they would be even less of a threat to unity now than the last time they were elected, in 1998.

Remember that government? It had a powerhouse leader in Lucien Bouchard, but couldn’t move the separatist yardsticks. The public support wasn’t there. Mr. Bouchard was succeeded by Bernard Landry, another bulldog. He could do no better. Relations with Ottawa in those years were rough at times, but hardly destabilizing. The national economy moved along nicely. Most Canadians hardly knew the PQ was there.

It likely wouldn’t be much different this time. The sovereignists are led now by Pauline Marois. She is no René Lévesque. She is no Lucien Bouchard. She is mundane by comparison. Support for sovereignty in Quebec is marshmallow soft, so weak she won’t be campaigning forthrightly on it. The Bloc Québécois, the support team her separatists have had in Ottawa, is nowhere near the force it has been. The most popular politician in Quebec is probably Thomas Mulcair, a New Democrat.

If Ms. Marois wins, it will be primarily due to fatigue with Jean Charest’s Liberals, who have had three terms. There won’t be a mandate for a referendum. She will try and build support for one, but chances of sustained progress are slim.

If the PQ had some outstanding grievance with Ottawa that could not be accommodated, there would be reason for concern. But there is no such issue. Former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe found that out in the last federal election. He could find no grave injustice with which to beat the feds and rile French Canadians. Over the previous four decades, with Quebec-based prime ministers in Ottawa, the province’s demands had largely been met. The grievance cupboard had run bare.

Previous federal governments had large numbers of seats in Quebec. They had to be sensitive to the province’s nationalist causes. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have only five. They have won – and can win – without Quebec. They don’t have to kowtow. While some see a PQ victory as causing all kinds of headaches for the Prime Minister, he might actually find political benefit. Canadians would likely rally behind a hard line toward a PQ-governed Quebec. Mr. Harper’s concern is the next federal election. That will come before another referendum – if there ever is another referendum.

Ms. Marois said earlier this year that the hidebound policies of the Harper government are so out of line with progressive Quebeckers that they will help her make the case for sovereignty. Maybe so, but on policies such as the environment and the abolition of the gun registry, Jean Charest’s government has already provided strong opposition to Ottawa. It needs be remembered too that the Harper government, which granted the Québécois nation status, is considerably more respective of provincial autonomy than predecessors.

A PQ government would likely settle the student unrest that has plagued the province. Its instincts would be to spend, spend, spend, but the province’s big debt would prevent it from doing so. As premier, Ms. Marois would be bogged down trying to meet her own dire challenges – Ottawa-bashing wouldn’t carry the day.

Quebec is capable of big mood swings. Nothing can be banked on. Obviously, it would be better for the federalist formation to win this election, but in a province where there are two major parties, the second one is bound to win sometimes. (Unless we’re talking about Alberta.)

With sovereignty tides low and with little chance of them rising, there are probably worse times for a Péquiste win than now. They aren’t the threat they used to be.

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