National Column: Federal sovereigntists drag PQ under water

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by Chantal Hebert

In his final interview in 2015, the late Jacques Parizeau famously described the Parti Quebecois he once almost led to a historical referendum victory as a field of ruins. Make no mistake: the implosion this week of the Bloc Quebecois caucus is adding another layer of debris to an already littered field.

As party leader, Martine Ouellet is a dead politician walking. Like many in her predicament, she is deep in denial.

Her sovereigntist cohorts can only hope she will move on to the stage of grief that involves acceptance. With her predecessor Gilles Duceppe leading the charge, a cohort of past BQ MPs have called on her to step down.

There is virtual unanimity among Quebec’s political commentators that she is to blame for the crisis that has split her caucus wide open. There is also a consensus that the abrasive Ouellet cannot be part of a resolution of the issue.

As of Friday, she remained the nominal leader of the Bloc QuÈbÈcois. But what is left of her party is an empty shell.

There is no precedent for a party leader going on as if it were business as usual in the face of a massive loss of caucus confidence. In the past, federal leaders have resigned and put their leadership on the line for much less. Think of Joe Clark or, more recently, Stockwell Day.

Ouellet and her loyalists have few weapons to fight back against the dissenters. The full 10-MP complement of the Bloc is two seats short of the minimum to be recognized as an official party in the Commons. Its members, whether they sit together or not, are all treated as independents with the limited speaking rights that attend that status.

Going forward, the breakaway group will get to ask more questions in the House and will have more staff and money to pool together than the Ouellet-led rump.

The ongoing crisis has been cast as a conflict between those who would have the Bloc focus on
promoting sovereignty and those who would make job one the promotion of Quebec’s political consensus on Parliament Hill. It is an esoteric debate.

In the last election, the Bloc could have asked for a mandate to devote itself to beating the sovereigntist drum. Ouellet loyalist Mario Beaulieu had won the leadership on that basis.

Instead, only a few months before the election, he stepped aside so that Duceppe could return to try to pull the BQ from the brink. He did that by campaigning on the merits of supporting a party devoted solely to defending Quebec’s interests in the federal arena.

But Duceppe’s success was severely limited. Looking at the dismal Bloc results in the last two federal elections, an overwhelming majority of Quebecers have come to the conclusion that it has outlived its usefulness. The polls suggest they are not about to revisit that conclusion.

For all the rhetoric about the Bloc’s contribution to advancing either Quebec’s interests and/or the cause of sovereignty, the results are less than conclusive.

On the party’s almost-30-year watch on Parliament Hill, support for sovereignty steadily declined. Even in its glory days in the late ’90s, the BQ failed to win debates as fundamental as that of the Clarity Act on Quebec secession. It lost that battle in Parliament and subsequently in the federal election that followed.

If there is a case to be made for having a Bloc contingent in the House, it would be that Parliament is never more relevant than when its components reflect all major trends in the federation. Those certainly include Quebec’s secessionist movement.

It is a mug’s game to assess which of the other parties would stand to benefit most from the Bloc’s demise in the 2019 election. On that score, it would be risky for its federalist rivals to count their chickens before they hatch.

Should Ouellet come to terms with the reality of her predicament and resign, it might not be hard to find a more appealing Bloc leader.

The more immediate question is whether the implosion of the BQ will compound the pre-election woes of the Parti Quebecois. The factions that are facing off federally are also in play within the provincial party.

With only months to go to the Quebec fall election, the PQ has been struggling to raise its head out of water. From federal anchor, the Bloc under Ouellet has become an albatross around the neck of Quebec’s prime sovereigntist party.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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