Sovereignists press for commitment

Élections 2003

Josée Legault, a keen observer of Quebec politics and life, returns to The Gazette's opinion pages today after a two-year hiatus during which she worked as a special adviser to Premier Bernard Landry. Her column will appear on Fridays.
What's a miracle worth to Bernard Landry? So far, not even the possibility of a providential third mandate seems sufficient for the premier to make a firm commitment to achieving sovereignty.
A lot of water has passed under the sovereignty bridge since January 2001, when Landry announced his candidacy to succeed Lucien Bouchard. "We have the duty not to advance our cause but to triumph," he declared. Last week, he was a bit more bashful: "I am firmly committed to working with all my strength for sovereignty to happen as soon as possible. I even alluded to 2005. But I also committed myself not to hold a referendum if there is the slightest risk of losing it."
He then dismissed a whopping 46-per-cent support for the Yes side in the latest CROP poll: "Frankly, my obsession is more about voting intentions than anything else at the moment when I look at the polls." That takes care of that.
So now comes the hard question: What happens if the Parti Québécois is re-elected without a clear mandate to hold a referendum and receives a lower percentage of the vote than in 1998 - quite a possibility in a three-way race? If Lucien Bouchard thought 43 per cent of the vote to be insufficient to push for sovereignty, what would Landry do with even less? Would he see it as a mandate to not hold a referendum?
But because the election is near and victory is now possible, no one will risk the premier's wrath by asking him to commit firmly to a referendum. But there is a will among PQ members to push him in that direction as far as they can, especially since he said last September that he would try to achieve sovereignty within 1,000 days.
At the three-day PQ policy convention that starts tonight in Montreal, many riding executives will table propositions that demand action, not just words, to put sovereignty back on the front burner. Some call for the adoption of a fixed timetable to prepare for the next referendum; others want a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, and so on.
But without a clear commitment, even such actions could be delayed or suffer the sad fate of the Conseil de la souveraineté. Brought back to life only at the end of last December, it received a meagre $250,000 from the PQ, compared with the $4 million in public funds that Premier Jacques Parizeau gave it in 1995. Its federalist counterpart, the Council for Canadian Unity, received a staggering $13 million in federal public funds last year alone.
So it's no surprise that some want to take the whole referendum business out of the hands of the government. This weekend, the PQ youth committee will be pushing for a referendum to be held after a certain percentage of the population petitions for it. They say this new approach would mobilize Quebecers and "take the referendum strategy out of ministerial back rooms." This is one way, some believe, they can make the premier deliver sovereignty within his famed 1,000 days, even in the event he should want to back away in face of what he calls "the slightest risk of losing."
The problem is that the government, and Quebecers at large, would lose many of the remaining 780 or so days to sovereignty in endless debates on the practicality and legitimacy of proceeding by way of petition. The fact is that there would be no need for any of this if the premier would simply seek a clear mandate the same way Parizeau did in 1994.
But try as he might to avoid one, the premier's refusal to commit to a third referendum does, in fact, include a more precise deadline than what Bouchard promised with his "winning conditions." If he gets a miraculous third mandate, sovereignists from within and without the PQ will be knocking quickly at Landry's door with two numbers in mind: the year 2005 and what would then be less than 1,000 days.
And this time, they won't take no for an answer.

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