Harper expected to take hard line on referendum

His private member's bill a decade ago makes the Clarity Act look mild

Référendum III

A headline never tells the whole story. Take Tuesday's La Presse front pager "The Harper government is preparing for a
PQ victory." If this were a sure thing, it would have sent André Boisclair shopping for a new official residence.
This came from a Privy Council document handed to the Tory minister of Intergovernmental Affairs soon after the election. (Quick quiz: What's his, name? No wonder you don't know. He's one of Harper's band of silent ministers, Michael Chong.)
But here's the whole story. Although the document laments Charest's continued low satisfaction rating, it hopes the premier will pull off the election because he's a good campaigner and the Parti Québécois has lost 10 points with Boisclair as its leader.
So Privy Council analysts wrote what columnists here have been writing for months: Charest's unpopularity and Boisclair's inability to capitalize on it make it impossible to predict the results of the next election. And if Charest loses, it could be a problem for federalists. Big discovery!
The real story, the one no leaked document will tell, is what Harper would do if the PQ wins and holds a referendum. But you can bet your next tax return that Harper knows what his contingency plan would be.
Because Jean Chrétien's Liberals fought the 1990 referendum fairly crudely with loads of money for pamphlets, billboards, maple leafs and rallies, many Péquistes are under the strange delusion that any federal government would fight the next one in the same way, with some extra help from the Clarity Act.
So they believe if they enact laws and regulations that make
it more difficult for Ottawa to buy up everything in sight to give undue visibility to the No side, they will make sure the next referendum will be fought more equitably Not so fast.
Harper's approach could make Chrétien's post-referendum Plan B smell like a bouquet of roses. Yesterday, Le Devoir columnist Michel David->1862] quoted Pierre Dubuc's book - [Le vrai visage de Stephen Harper - with a reminder that the current prime minister had tabled his own hardline member's bill in 1906.
It would have allowed Ottawa to hold its own referendum on secession on the same day as Quebec's, with a two-part question including one on the possible partitioning of "communities" from Quebec.
For all his pillow talk on open federalism, when it comes to secession, Harper is no Mr. Nice Guy.
Here's the kicker that went unnoticed: In his 1996 bill, a referendum held in Quebec without the prior approval of Ottawa would have no legitimacy. So forgot the Clarity Act that clicks in after the vote. Harper would move before.
Judging from his bill, if Québec held its own vote without following Ottawa's prior conditions - which is what would happen given the consensus here that a referendum is the National Assembly's business - Harper might decide to boycott the process and let Quebecers figh it out among themselves.
Harper surely would also deploy Canada's diplomats in the major foreign capitals, making the case that no recognition of a Yes vote be given before Ottawa's- a no-brainer in Washington.
Given that since 1996, the PQ has all but abandoned the diplomatic relations that Jacques Parizeau had painstakingly built over the years with France and its political elite, getting Paris to be less sympathetic to the actual sovereignty of Quebec would at least be worth a try for Harper.
International recognition being a major key to the final result of the democratic process, by keeping the federal government out of the referendum - as opposed to 1980 and 1995 - Harper could contend that Ottawa did not lend further legitimacy the vote by participating.
Even the Supreme Court reference on secession said it would be up to the political actors to assess whether the question and the majority were "clear." If Ottawa took part in the campaign, it would make it rather difficult for it to claim afterward that the question wasn't clear enough.
The PQ might not realize it, but although Harper wants federalism to be more flexible, his referendum game, especially fore the campaign even starts, would be much more hard ball than Chrétien's billboards.
But surely, he'd rather keep Charest around as premier and avoid the whole thing in the first place.

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