Let's not reopen debate on partnership

A Parti Quebecois convention is just around the corner. So there must be controversy brewing - or at least, that's what we've been conditioned to expect.


Saturday 15 April 2000
What will it be this time? Language? What's left of social democracy? A new referendum?
No. According to Tuesday's La Presse, the big question this time around will be whether, after a Yes vote, Quebec should continue to offer Canada a new political partnership. According to the report, the national executive of the PQ will submit to the party's May convention a resolution to scrap the political-partnership offer in the PQ program, while keeping a reference to an economic partnership. PQ vice-president Gilles Grenier was quoted as saying that this proposal is being put forward to better reflect what PQ members want.
Lucien Bouchard giving party members want they want? Now, that would be a precedent, especially given that it was Bouchard who, before the referendum campaign of 1995, brought in what he called his own partnership virage.
Nothing New
Deputy Premier Bernard Landry was quick to respond to the news report.
The premier, he said, hadn't seen the resolution and remains a strong supporter of political partnership.
So we're told that a major debate is about to take place in the PQ over this issue.
The fact is, such discussions are nothing new. When Rene Levesque founded the Mouvement Souverainete-Association in 1967, achieving political and economic association with Canada was considered just as important as sovereignty itself. That is why the PQ planned to have a second referendum to ratify the result of any negotiations that would have followed a victorious first referendum in 1980.
But in 1995, no second referendum was planned. By that point, the emphasis was clearly on sovereignty.
A few months before the October vote, Bouchard had taken his famous virage, which had resulted in a detailed offer of political partnership being added on to the referendum question.
On June 12, 1995, the Bloc Quebecois, the PQ and the Action Democratique had ratified a tripartite agreement on "sovereignty partnership." The wording was precise: Quebec would become sovereign and formally propose to Canada a new political and economic partnership, aiming at consolidating the economic space we share. The agreement stated that it did not prejudge what Canadians would decide after a Yes vote. It was an offer, with no guarantee of results.
It described the mandate to be obtained by a Yes victory as giving the Quebec Parliament the ability to proclaim sovereignty. It also obligated the government to offer Canada a treaty creating a new political and economic partnership.
If negotiations went well, the National Assembly would proclaim the sovereignty of Quebec once it had ratified the treaty. But if negotiations failed, it would still have declared sovereignty. What mattered in the end was that only one referendum was needed, whether a partnership were achieved or not.
Wise Parizeau
Parizeau was wise to do away with the second referendum, a sword of Damocles that would have rendered Quebec completely vulnerable to what would have been a predictable refusal from Ottawa to negotiate.
The main difference between the two leaders was that Parizeau put a greater emphasis on sovereignty and on what he saw as an unavoidable economic association, while Bouchard emphasized the political aspect of the partnership offer.
So before PQ members needlessly get dragged into some specious debate on whether the political-partnership offer should be axed from the party platform, everyone should remember two things:
- Sovereignty is no longer submitted to the fruitful negotiation of a partnership. That was clarified by Parizeau in 1995.
- Partnership remains an offer and not an obligation. That was clarified by Bouchard, also in 1995.
So what's the problem?
Instead of reopening the partnership debate, PQ members should first try to encourage their leader to put the promotion of sovereignty back at the very centre of public debate and of government policy-making. Without that, there'll be no need to discuss the partnership issue - because there'll be no sovereignty.

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