National Column: A chance at relevance for the Bloc

by Chantal Hebert

To the surprise of no one except herself, Bloc Quebecois Leader Martine Ouellet has lost her bid to remain at the helm of the federal sovereigntist party. On the weekend, two-thirds of the remaining BQ members showed her the door. The verdict could not have been clearer. Still, it took Ouellet almost 24 hours to acknowledge that she had finally run out of options.

A Martian landing on Earth in the middle of her parting news conference on Monday might have thought she was launching a purge of her party, rather than bowing out after decisively losing the confidence of its members.

Ouellet prefaced her resignation with a 30-minute lecture, more than half of which was spent taking shots at those who had called on her to resign. The list included everyone from former leader Gilles Duceppe and the party president who initially recruited her to the majority of MPs who left her caucus in protest over her leadership.

She said there were much worse sovereigntist leaders than she was. She did not name names. She asserted that the main reason Quebec was not yet a country was because a “sick” sovereignty movement was squandering its energies on internal machinations.

In fairness to Ouellet, she did succeed where a succession of federalist leaders had failed – managing to lower the support for her party to such historical lows that it would have been wiped off the map if an election had been held this spring.

Caught in a storm in no small part of her own making, she responded by insisting on staying at the helm even after it became clear that she would bring the ship down with her.

It would be tempting to bury the BQ along with its latest leader. After all, it is not as if the federal sovereigntist party had been in great shape to begin with. And unless it brings back in the fold the dissident MPs who plan to create a rival party, the Bloc is surely doomed.

But provided it restores the unity of its caucus, the party still has a few cards left to play in next year’s federal election.

By any measure, the Bloc is better off without Ouellet as leader. It will not be hard to find a replacement who is not as abrasive or as devoid of listening skills.

Her permanent replacement will presumably not be selected until after the Quebec election on Oct. 1. If Jean-Francois Lisee’s Parti Quebecois finishes third, as the polls currently suggest, its defeat could free up more talent for the Bloc.

A PQ defeat could also render moot the relatively pointless internal debate that has raged within the federal party about how much of its work should focus on the promotion of sovereignty.

While the Bloc has been feuding, the pipeline war has heated up. There is a significant anti-pipeline constituency in Quebec and it has been mobilizing against Justin Trudeauís decision to take the lead on the completion of the Trans Mountain expansion project.

In next year’s election, the Bloc will be competing with the New Democrats for that anti-pipeline vote. Jagmeet Singh has miles to go before he has a profile on par with that of Thomas Mulcair or Jack Layton in Quebec, and his party has dismal numbers in the province to show for that. If the BQ gets its leadership sorted out, it could poach some of the 2015 NDP vote.

In a year-end Leger poll, done before the leadership crisis, the sovereigntist party was ahead of the Singh-led NDP by six points in Quebec. In that poll, the BQ was also tied with the Conservatives.

Since then, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has launched a charm offensive in Quebec, but its impact stands to be severely limited by the partyís increasingly vocal pro-pipeline stance.

In the House of Commons last week, the Conservative opposition reacted to the federal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline by calling on the Liberals to get behind the resurrection of the Energy East project.

The PQ and the Bloc always had the highest hopes for the pipeline Trans Canada initially wanted to build to link the oilfields to the Atlantic Coast. Outside of the pro-pipeline camp, few were as sorry to see the project abandoned as those two parties. Sovereigntist strategists, among others, believe a federal attempt to force a pipeline through Quebec could be just what the doctor ordered for a flagging secessionist movement.

If Scheer is determined to go into next yearís campaign with a platform that promises to double down on pipeline politics, he will be offering a grateful BQ the breath of life.

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

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