If the polls are to be believed, the Parti Québécois (PQ) is set to win the Quebec election Sept. 4, perhaps securing a minority government. If so, what is the federal government going to do? Do the governing Conservatives have a plan of action?
PQ Leader Pauline Marois has promised that, as premier, she will stand up for Quebec and push back against the Harper government. There will be efforts to toughen Quebec's language laws, a move to implement a controversial secular charter, and even the possibility of disregarding Supreme Court of Canada decisions regarding Canada's Charter of Right and Freedoms.
More problematic, she appears to have a constitutional strategy in mind -- namely, to create the "winning conditions" for a referendum on Quebec's status within the federation. None of this should be taken lightly.
First, her government will undoubtedly make a series of demands on Ottawa for devolving more powers to Quebec City. The PQ will start with a request to turn over legislative jurisdiction in the areas of immigration, agriculture, employment insurance, regional economic development and culture and communications.
No federal government -- however poorly represented in Quebec -- could accede to such demands and still hope to get re-elected in 2015. And this is precisely what the separatists are banking on.
Of course, the idea here is to force Ottawa, which it surely will, to reject the Quebec government's demands and thus foment a federal-provincial crisis. Then Marois and the PQ will point to how dysfunctional the federation is, identify this latest episode as another major humiliation for Quebecers, and argue an independent Quebec is the only realistic solution.
But is Ottawa in a position today to mount a serious and effective counter-attack against the Péquistes?
Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper the right person for the job?
We should not forget this is the same person who crafted the House of Commons resolution recognizing the "Québécois as a nation within Canada." Nor should we downplay the fact his government has largely adopted a hands-off posture when it comes to interfering in provincial matters.
Furthermore, there is no disputing Stephen Harper is deeply unpopular in Quebec today. From his embrace of the monarchy and the "royal" designation to his law-and-order agenda, the prime minister is clearly on the outs with Quebecers, as his garnering of only five MPs in the May 2011 federal election manifestly confirmed.
Given the limited federal presence in the province, then, how will Harper be in a position to confront the sovereigntists? Won't he be more of an asset for the PQ in any future referendum fight -- assuming the Péquistes come forward with a clear question in compliance with the Clarity Act.
Is Harper going to deliberately permit the sovereigntists -- as a sop to westerners, other disgruntled Canadians, and for purely electoral reasons -- to have the constitutional field to themselves?
Yet one would be hard-pressed to believe having Prime Minister Harper leading the 'No' side in Quebec would be a good thing. The separatists, to be sure, would have a field day with this. Talk about rolling the constitutional dice!
More to the point, would Harper have legitimacy and street credibility in any future referendum campaign? Will he simply sit back, play mostly defence, and let the sovereigntists carry the political can?
That, it seems to me, would be a very dangerous posture for the federal government. And such a response would only play into the hands of the PQ and tilt the balance in favour of a winning referendum on Quebec sovereignty.
Instead, Conservative cabinet and caucus members will need to be tactically astute and willing to take the fight directly to the sovereigntists. While they may not have to respond aggressively to every PQ provocation, they can't back down from mixing it up with the Péquistes or fail to respond purposely and persuasively to any charge, however outlandish, emanating from Quebec City. They will have little choice but to enter the fray, in a big way.
Moreover, they must not play into the hands of the PQ by using intemperate language or needlessly provoking the soft Quebec nationalists. They will also need the co-operation of other provinces, along with federalist parties in Quebec.
In the end, Ottawa will need to make a convincing case, through a bevy of economic, politico-diplomatic and cultural arguments, for why Quebecers would be better off remaining within the federation. It may not be a perfect strategy, but sitting back and hoping for the best is a surefire recipe for disaster.
Peter McKenna is professor of political science
at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.