In other jurisdictions, citizens get to have elections about economic issues, say, or social policy, or maybe clean energy. But here in Quebec we're still going to the dentist, election after election.
It was Jacques Parizeau who compared the crusade for Quebec sovereignty to "a never-ending visit to the dentist." He was arguing that the obsessive drama of it all will not end except on the Glorious Day. Say what you want about sovereignists, but they are persistent.
Quebecers will choose a new government on March 26. All the parties will run on the Liberal record - one defending it, the others attacking it - but the dental issue is never far away. Other matters, from university tuition fees to reasonable accommodation, will figure in the campaign. But nobody will forget that sovereignty remains the meta-issue.
For anglophones and many allophones, la question nationale sucks all the air out of the room at election time, attaching these voters, sometimes reluctantly, to the Liberals.
This is less true for non-sovereignist francophones. In some circles, Quebec's celebrated "soft nationalists" are derided for having failed after all this time to make up their minds, but that's unfair. Many people find in persistent ambiguity what we might call "profitable knife-to-the-throat federalism."
If it were not for those soft nationalists, would Quebecers today be so confident that Santa Jim Flaherty will be stuffing big bags of cash down our chimneys on March 19, the day of the federal budget?
The danger with living on a knife edge this way is that someday the blade could slip. True, sovereignists have never mustered 50 per cent support from voters in any election or referendum. And do you remember the bad old days when nobody questioned the notion that 50 per cent plus one would be enough votes to legitimize the dismembering of Canada? That spurious doctrine has now been rejected legally and, to a large degree, politically.
But you don't need a super-majority to win a Quebec election. In fact, less than 40 per cent could elect a PQ majority on March 26 (although the Liberals need more because rural voters, heavily francophone and so friendlier to the PQ, are grossly over-represented in the National Assembly).
Certainly the prospect of another referendum is unwelcome to many voters. PQ leader Andre Boisclair has already taken steps to distance himself from his party's formal commitment to hold a referendum as early as possible in a new PQ administration. He could have a tricky time of it during this campaign, trying to pacify party hard-liners without alarming the voters.
Once the PQ got elected, however, who could say what might happen within his volatile party? From Lucien Bouchard's "wave of the wand" to Parizeau's lobster trap and his mysterious Plan O, candour and transparency have not exactly been a central element of separatist tactics. And the PQ in power could easily use much of the machinery of government to serve The Cause. Does anyone really want to go through all that again?
As this campaign begins, then, we can only dream fondly of being able as voters to concentrate on real issues - from tuition to climate change to demerger to "solidaire" vs. "lucide" - without being mired in the endless trench warfare of the independence issue.
Some optimists claim to see, in Boisclair's apparent weakness and in the federal Conservatives' initiatives toward Quebecers, the beginning of a fatal decline for sovereignist parties. That would surely be healthy for Quebec, and for Canada, but unhappily we say we won't believe in that trend until we see it. Until that day, however, well, the dentist will see you now.