Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor must be wondering why the heck they were named to head a commission on reasonable accommodation when Jean Charest and Pauline Marois keep pre-empting their final report.
Charest jumped the gun with his proposal to amend Quebec's charter of rights to give the equality of women and men precedence over freedom of religion. And then yesterday Parti Québécois leader Marois tabled a bill for a new Quebec constitution.
It seems the two leaders, facing a possible spring vote, are putting pre-electoral jitters ahead of prudent reflection on these complex issues.
Charest might have created the Bouchard-Taylor commission simply to yank the issue of reasonable accommodation from Mario Dumont's hands. But now that it exists, Charest's and Marois's moves appear blatantly premature.
They also show the Liberals and the PQ, hoping to shrink Action démocratique's lead among francophones, remain obsessed with aligning themselves with Dumont's agenda, which also includes a Quebec constitution.
The debate over reasonable accommodation revitalized the issue of Quebec identity - the new buzz phrase for political parties, including the Bloc Québécois in Ottawa. The result has been that the original debate over reasonable accommodation has become a confused mess that seems now to include everything but the kitchen sink: immigration, multiculturalism, religion, language, values and what not.
By not letting the commission sort out the serious from the silly or what really falls under the heading of Quebec identity from wider concerns such as sexual equality, Charest and Marois are adding to the confusion, not the solution.
Moving quickly for electoral reasons, Charest and Marois also are contributing to the growing perception that Quebec's national identity is under siege.
This has now reached new heights with Marois's tabling of a wide-ranging bill that tries to define the notion of Quebec's identity. It includes a new constitution and citizenship within Canada, the interpretation of fundamental rights in the light of Quebec's heritage and values, predominance of French, quality of written and spoken French, extending Bill 101 to mid-size companies, promoting Quebec's history and culture, integration of newcomers, equality of men and women, a secular state, and so on.
The banning of ostentatious religious signs in public institutions is the one hot potato that Marois chose to leave to Bouchard and Taylor.
Marois's bill, whose passage is unlikely, is mostly a pre-electoral trial balloon, an attempt to beat Dumont at his own game. But it's also a sign of idle hands. By shelving the referendum, the PQ traded its action plan for independence for a classic nationalist, autonomist approach based on the defence of Quebec's identity within Canada.
This doesn't mean that the idea of a constitution within Canada isn't a good one. In fact, it has been around for decades. Or that we shouldn't strengthen the protection of women's equality rights against any encroachment, be it religious or otherwise.
But Marois's bill goes way beyond that. It draws the contours of an independent Quebec, not of a province whose charter of rights and even its written constitution would remain subject to those of Canada.
So instead of bashfully presenting it as a tool for the "collective betterment" of Quebecers within Canada for lack of a sovereignty that Marois says she still believes in, why doesn't the PQ simply cut to the chase?
One way would be for it to say that if it takes power, it would turn this bill into a constitution people could vote on in a referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
That happens to be precisely what Jacques Parizeau suggested a few years ago. But that, of course, would require the PQ to put the R-word back in its platform, something Marois has said is out of the question.
Instead, Dumont will at least find a strong ally for a new constitution within Canada. Unless, he now changes his mind.
PQ's constitutional proposal just confuses the debate
Charest and Marois add to the perception that Quebec's identity is under siege