If the Parti Québécois wins a majority government in the April 7 election, as seems likely, a wild card will be thrown into federal politics.
How to respond to the latest threat of Quebec secession will be an unavoidable issue for all federal parties. Which one will benefit remains unknown.
What can be predicted with some certainty is the rest of Canada's initial reaction to a PQ victory: annoyance mixed with boredom and intransigence. "Not this again" will be the widespread response.
If Quebeckers believe that voting PQ means putting a knife to Canada's throat, they should think again. The ROC is fed up with these threats. As Rhett Butler said to Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
Still, angry or not, the ROC will have to respond somehow through its elected officials in Ottawa. Which leader will they prefer?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a hard-liner as a rookie Reform Party MP and then while outside politics, in exile in Calgary. He was appalled at the federal government's soft attitude toward Quebec's threats and the possibility of secession.
Mr. Harper thought – and he was right – that it was inexcusable for Jean Chrétien's Liberals to have been so ill-prepared for the 1995 referendum, and for the rest of Canada not to have prepared itself intellectually for an attempted secession by Quebec. Mr. Harper approved of the Clarity Act, adopted by Parliament after the 1995 referendum, and even credited himself and the Reform Party with having done the political ground work for the Liberals' belated action to define the terms of a possible secession.
As Prime Minister, with the threat of Quebec secession apparently dormant, Mr. Harper switched strategies. He became the wooer of Quebec's sentiments, especially its strongly nationalist ones, getting Parliament to adopt a motion declaring Quebeckers a "nation" within a united Canada.
All his wooing, however, failed over time. Quebeckers saw more and more aspects of his Conservative government that they did not like: indifference to climate change, "tough on crime" legislation, embrace of the fossil fuel industries, a tin ear to the province's vagaries and sensitivities.
Mr. Harper was left with just one trick in his bag: spending federal money in Quebec. But Quebeckers expect dollops of cash from Ottawa, and seldom reward a federal politician for delivering what they have come to believe is their right.
The Conservatives now score in the single digits in Quebec, which is why no one should assume the PQ would put off a referendum for many years. Organizing a referendum against the leadership of Mr. Harper, an easy, unpopular target, might be very tempting.
Outside Quebec, however, Mr. Harper's history as a hard-ass who isn't beholden to Quebec for re-election could be just what the rest of Canada wants. Some voters not normally inclined toward him might say: I don't like the guy, but he's strong, and if the going gets tough, I want him there to defend our interests. In this sense, Mr. Harper could become the big political winner from a PQ victory.
Alternatively, the rest of Canada could get over its initial irritation or anger, conclude that they don't really want the country to break up and therefore favour a leader with standing in Quebec. That would mean either Justin Trudeau and the Liberals or Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats.
A PQ win will almost certainly bring a referendum in due course. Premier Pauline Marois has spent her adult life trying to make Quebec an independent country. At 65, this would be her last chance.
The usual gambits will be trotted out by her party: constant guerrilla warfare with Ottawa, provocations with the rest of Canada, endless public consultations, lavish use of government money to promote secession, economic studies showing the sturdiness of an independent Quebec and so on. Ms. Marois might even try an initial referendum on transferring federal powers to Ottawa, or proclaim a law for Quebec-only citizenship.
The trouble for Mr. Mulcair, who has a good reputation in Quebec, will be to hold his MPs in line. Some of the more nationalist ones might like some of this stuff.