Here we go again. Across Canada people are bracing for the nettlesome prospect that the Parti Québ¥cois may emerge as the default winner in Quebec's provincial election, and could soon be back to its old games.
PQ Leader Pauline Marois appears to be reaping the benefit of a split in the federalist vote, as voters forsake Jean Charest's long-ruling Liberals for Francois Legault's fledgling Coalition Avenir Quebec. Days before today's election, polls suggest a PQ win seems the likely outcome.
The irony isn't lost on Quebecers: Recent surveys put the PQ at about 33 per cent support, while the Liberals and CAQ combined pulled in roughly 55 per cent. People may end up with the sovereigntist government most of them don't want. Even so, many soft nationalist voters are gravitating to CAQ out of sheer frustration with Charest's tired, nine-year-old, scandal-tainted government. They'll get change, though not the kind of change many might prefer.
The prospect of a PQ win, even a narrow minority one, ought to focus minds in Ottawa. It would put pressure not only on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make the federal case for a united Canada if worse came to worst, but also on the opposition New Democrats and Liberals.
Harper is unloved in Quebec for his small-c conservative policies, holds just five of Quebec's 75 federal seats and is poorly fixed to pitch a compelling message.
New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair, by contrast, "connected" with Quebecers in the 2011 federal election and holds 58 seats.
Even Bob Rae's Liberals have eight, with the Bloc Québécois holding the remaining four. In any debate over Quebec's future the opposition should have a lot to contribute.
Given the sheer volatility of the Quebec electorate, even diehard PQ militants aren't claiming victory yet.
Still, prudence suggests Canada's major federal parties should steel themselves for an unsettling result. One lesson from Quebec's 1995 referendum on separation, which the sovereigntists came that close to winning, is that federalists can't afford to let them frame the terms of the debate.
That's just what Marois hopes to do. She flatly wants "to put Quebec back on the road to sovereignty." She intends to pick fights with Ottawa over unemployment insurance and other issues to help create "winning conditions" for another referendum.
Yet the PQ can hardly claim a serious mandate to separate. The majority of Quebecers won't vote PQ. They recoil at the thought of yet another referendum. It shouldn't strain Ottawa's collective capacities to effectively counter Marois' pitch.
Prominent figures in Canada's capital should be prepared to speak for the federalist majority in Quebec, and to the value of federalism itself. Certainly that's what Canadians expect.
As prime minister, Harper has the lead role. But given the Tories' weakness in Quebec he would be wise to cultivate a cross-party meeting of the minds with the opposition to ensure that Ottawa's answer to the challenges a Marois government might pose is clear, forceful and unified.
-- The Canadian Press