When federalist political parties play footsie with separatists, bad things can happen. New Democrat Leader Thomas Mulcair has found that out the hard way, now that MP Claude Patry has bolted from the NDP caucus to join the Bloc Quebecois in an act of betrayal that left the party reeling.
Like many in the NDP's Quebec ranks, Patry was swept into office on Jack Layton's "orange wave" in the May 2, 2011, election. But to hear him tell it now, he was always a separatist. "I voted for Quebec sovereignty in the past two referenda," he said last week. "I hoped that Quebec would become a country, and I hope for it still." He made his move as Parliament prepares to vote on a Bloc private member's bill to repeal the Clarity Act, which sets a high bar to Quebec secession. The NDP opposes the bill.
Perhaps it was only a matter of time. Defections happen. Mulcair lost Quebec MP Lise St-Denis to the Liberals last year, and Ontario MP Bruce Hyer quit to sit as an independent. Given the nationalist sentiments and past affiliations of many in the NDP Quebec ranks, a loss to the Bloc was likely sooner or later. But that doesn't make it any less damaging.
Predictably, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lost no time making political hay at Mulcair's expense. He quickly drew attention to "the ambiguity on Canadian unity that we have among some members of the NDP caucus in Quebec," and their close links with Quebec solidaire, a sovereigntist provincial party.
A stung Mulcair could only urge Patry to muster "the courage of his conviction" and resign his seat to face the voters again in a byelection. In that, Mulcair has a point. Patry is a serial betrayer whose credibility is in tatters.
By bolting to the Bloc, Patry has betrayed Layton's effort to get Quebecers to put their trust in Confederation again. He has also betrayed the formal NDP policy that no MP should switch allegiance without first resigning and being re-elected. A year ago he voted in favour of an NDP private member's bill to that effect. Now this.
But worst of all Patry has betrayed the voters in Jonquiere-Alma, spectacularly. They voted 80 per cent for federalist candidates; the Bloc got only 18 per cent. Crossing the Commons floor, cynically or with conviction, is a fact of life in politics. But to switch to a party that wants to break up the country is no run-of-the-mill breach of faith. Patry cannot credibly claim to represent his constituency or their interests. He should step down and take his chances in a byelection.