Parti Québécois Leader André Boisclair is, by temperament, a moderate man. He's never been a hard-liner on sovereignty, he's a staunch defender of minority rights and he's not a natural friend of the union movement. Yet, paradoxically, he's pushing for a sovereigntist platform that is the most radical the PQ's ever had.
Some weeks ago, Mr. Boisclair tried to distance himself from the union leaders who've always been the PQ's traditional allies, but his party's major stalwarts, many of whom come from the labour movement, openly rebelled. The young leader had to make amends and pledge loyalty to the powerful public-sector unions. (He was eventually forgiven, somewhat paternalistically, by the head of the Quebec Federation of Labour, Henri Massé).
Mr. Boisclair couldn't do much, either, about the radical sovereigntist platform that he inherited from the PQ's last convention, in June of 2005. When he ran for the leadership, he had to subscribe to the program voted by the militants. Once elected, in November of 2005, he could have forced a change - something that strong leaders such as René Lévesque or Lucien Bouchard would have done. But Mr. Boisclair didn't have the clout or the moral authority to do this. So now he's stuck with a platform that not only goes against his own personality, but that is bound to repel most Quebeckers.
For the first time in its existence, the PQ is proposing outright secession, without the reassuring promise of some kind of association or partnership with the rest of Canada. This actually conforms to the Supreme Court of Canada's insistence that the referendum question should be clear and deal only with secession.
But, in so doing, the PQ is depriving itself of a major strategic argument, since most Quebeckers want to maintain close links with Canada. Mr. Lévesque, the PQ founder, insisted that "sovereignty" and "association" couldn't be dissociated, and even Jacques Parizeau, a much more radical leader, included the concept of "partnership" (with the rest of Canada) in the 1995 referendum question.
Moreover, the PQ platform now considers the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence, which goes against international jurisprudence. Also, a PQ government would start campaigning for independence, in Quebec and abroad, before Quebeckers have an opportunity to vote on the issue.
This kind of program is impossible to sell in a province where two-thirds of the people don't even want to hear about a referendum. The PQ is threatening them with a third one (after those of 1980 and 1995), and maybe even a fourth one. Mr. Boisclair said last week that, if the PQ lost its next referendum, nothing would prevent the party from calling another one in the future.
What saves the PQ from electoral failure is that many Quebeckers have become quite cynical about its push for sovereignty. It's mostly talk and little action, they say, so they don't take it too seriously. Many observers even doubt that the PQ would call a referendum if it won this election. All it would take to postpone the project is a few polls indicating a sure defeat for the Yes camp. But still, many Quebeckers like the PQ to stand up to "the rest of Canada." If push came to shove, they reason, they could always vote No in a referendum.
Needless to say, Jean Charest attacked the PQ's sovereigntist platform with gusto, to the point where what was supposed to be a simple election campaign sounds like a referendum campaign. Mr. Charest is using the same arguments as in the 1995 referendum - the "black hole" into which the PQ wants to send Quebec, the risk of partition and so on, while the PQ, just like in 1995, talks about the cheerful days that would follow a Yes vote. All in all, it sounds like a scratched CD. No wonder most Quebeckers are blasé about this debate.