Tripping over the r-word

Québec 2007 - Parti Québécois

OK, now I'm jealous. The best line of the Quebec electoral campaign so far was Andrew Coyne's in Saturday National Post. The vote, he wrote, "is a choice between a party that is clearly for vagueness, and a party that is vaguely for clarity." Most splendid. Why didn't I think of it first?

The special beauty of his bon mot is that you can't be totally sure whether it's Jean Charest's Liberals or Andre Boisclair's Parti Quebecois that are vaguely for clarity or clearly for vagueness. Both are playing the same Quebec-is-already-secretly-a-real-nation game. But only one is more or less willing(ish) actually to go through the necessary steps formally to turn Quebec the province into Quebec le pays.

Unless, of course, any of the steps involve one of them ref -- NOOOOOOOO! We're not using that word anymore. The brand-new PQ platform released this weekend did not mention the word referendum once, choosing instead to talk about "popular consultation." What are they trying to hide, huh?

Not much. Discussing the issue on CPAC Sunday morning, I had to agree with fellow panelist Manon Cornellier of Le Devoir that the change in terminology shouldn't matter because the PQ devotes about a sixth of its platform, right at the beginning, to the whys and hows of Quebec sovereignty. On top of which everybody knows perfectly well that the PQ is itching to hold a third referendum as soon as possible. It's way too late to hide that.

As Mr. Charest pointed out, the infamous "fiscal imbalance" is also absent from the PQ platform -- as is "platform," the document is instead called a feuille de route, or roadmap -- so maybe the party was simply overwhelmed by a desire to change rhetorical curtains. Still, dropping the R-word was a tactical blunder of the first order. A blunder not untypical of this party, which has a history of tripping over semicolons and taking years to decide whether to put a hyphen between "sovereignty" and "association" and if so, how big a hyphen.

Apparently some people in the PQ thought it was clever to use "popular consultation" because it was more popular than "referendum" with focus groups. (Along, possibly, with "root canal.") But it was a mistake because, in having the appearance but not the substance of deviousness, it gratuitously gave political adversaries a heavy club with which to beat Mr. Boisclair over the head.

Mr. Charest, a fine campaigner, jumped on this irresistible opportunity. "We're not talking about small-business policy here," he intoned dramatically. "We're literally talking about Quebec's future, the future of our children, and on that he's playing with words." Mr. Charest was also quick to dredge up former PQ premier Jacques Parizeau's lobster-trap metaphor after one of Mr. Boisclair's star candidates, former union leader Marc Laviolette, downplayed the switch to "popular consultation" thus: "White cat, black cat -- what's important is that it catches the mouse."


A beleaguered Mr. Boisclair spent the rest of his weekend scrambling to undo the damage. "For two days now, Mr. Charest has been trying to have a debate on words with a dictionary, rather than on the ideas at the bottom of things," he told journalists on Sunday. Good try. But really, you started it.

Yes, we ought to be discussing more important stuff such as what to do about crumbling overpasses and patients dying of C. difficile by the thousands. But this is politics, and words matter. If Mr. Boisclair isn't even good at talking straight, it reinforces the impression most people have that he's not ready to be premier. It doesn't help that he boasted of being "a campaign guy. It's when I'm at my best." So you're saying you'd be even worse at governing?

Regrettably, Mr. Boisclair isn't alone in his lack of clarity. While his party is desperately trying to look as though it's not hiding its true nationalist intentions, the other main party is clearly in favour of denouncing its opponents for being in favour of vagueness. But that second party is in fact awfully vague on just how clearly federalist it is. When Mr. Charest said recently that "Yes, Quebec is a nation. Quebec is a force for change within Canada and a Liberal government represents this locomotive of change for Canadian federalism," did he display a vague commitment to clarity or a clear commitment to vagueness?
How on Earth are Quebec voters supposed to sort this mess out? And how come it was an anglo from Toronto, and not me, who put his finger so precisely on the problem?

Brigitte Pellerin's column appears Tuesday and Thursday.

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