Memo to Layton: Leave language and the constitution alone

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It is precisely because Quebecers don't want another referendum that Jack Layton and the NDP won 59 Quebec seats in the House of Commons.

How, then, did Layton find himself sipping from this poisoned chalice last week when he allowed that 50 per cent plus one would constitute a clear majority in another referendum?

His answer to this hypothetical question should have been: "If there's one thing Quebecers told us on May 2 it's that they don't want another referendum, and we intend to make federalism work for all Quebecers. Now, let me introduce my shadow cabinet."

In other words, he allowed the media to knock him off his message.

Layton's surge from the mid-20s in the polls to 43 per cent on election day in Quebec occurred after Gilles Duceppe's disastrous speech to the Parti Québécois convention on April 17, when he said: "Elect the maximum number of sovereignists in Ottawa, and then we go to the next phase - electing a PQ government. A strong Bloc in Ottawa. The PQ in power in Quebec. And then everything then becomes possible."

Et tout redevient encore possible. A direct echo of the 1995 Yes campaign slogan: "Oui et tout devient possible."

As if this didn't evoke enough bad memories, Duceppe brought out Jacques Parizeau in the final week of the campaign, putting a face to all those bad memories.

In the last two weeks of the campaign, the Bloc plunged from 39 per cent in the Nanos daily tracking poll on the day of Duceppe's speech to 23 per cent on election day.

Quebecers had already decided Layton was un bon Jack, a good guy. They liked his imperfect but colloquial French. They liked the cane, which became the symbol of a gallant campaign. But make no mistake - Duceppe's speech, and the threat of another referendum, was the game-changer.

So how could Layton have allowed himself to become the victim of a drive-by shooting on the same question?

The French-language media used the NDP's Sherbrooke Declaration of 2005 as their reference point, stirred the sleepy English-language media in the process, and ruined what should have been a triumphal re-entry to Ottawa for Layton and his 103-member caucus.

The Sherbrooke Declaration affirms that 50 per cent plus one would be enough to break up the country. But the Supreme Court of Canada, in the famous 1998 reference, unanimously ruled that "a clear majority" was required to "a clear question." Then the Clarity Act of 1999-2000, put the spirit of the court's ruling into legislation.

Asked to square this circle in Montreal on Sunday, Layton said: "The Supreme Court decision says you need 'a clear majority.' And our Sherbrooke Declaration puts a number to what a clear majority means - 50 per cent plus one. That's been our policy for a long time and remains so."

Nice try, Jack. Nobody cared what the NDP's policy was when it was the fourth place party in the House. Now that it's the official opposition it actually matters what the NDP's policy is.

This imbroglio over a referendum that's unlikely to occur anytime soon has shone a spotlight on other NDP policies that no one paid any attention to during the campaign.

For example, Layton has restated his commitment to "present our bill for the French language in federally regulated institutions and workplaces."

In essence, the NDP would apply Bill 101 in the federally regulated workplace in Quebec. This is a dog that previously hunted with the Bloc. And if the NDP were to introduce such a bill on its first Opposition day, the Bloc's smattering of four MPs would support it. But fortunately the Liberals would join the Conservative majority to defeat it. Therefore, Layton is once again answering a hypothetical question.

Nevertheless, this will come as a shock to anglophones and allophones who elected NDP members in places such as N.D.G.-Lachine and Pierrefonds-Dollard.

Similarly, Layton answered another dangerous hypothetical during the campaign when he said he would reopen the Constitution under "winning conditions" to obtain Quebec's signature.

There are three things you should never go near in Quebec, Jack - the language issue, the word "referendum," and the Constitution.

Every one of them is a big loser. Leave them alone.

 
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