Quebec, Referendums, and Formulas for Secession

A percent signNational unity is back in the news after the NDP tabled a private member’s bill yesterday, a bill that would repeal the Clarity Act and set the bar for Quebec sovereignty negotiations at a mere 50 percent plus one in a clearly worded referendum.

We all know what that means. The NDP, it will be claimed over the coming days and weeks, is “in bed with the separatists” and willing to “tear our country apart” for partisan advantage. There is nothing those treacherous socialists won’t do to preserve the Faustian bargain that won them Quebec in 2011!

Never mind that one can with perfect consistency oppose Quebec separatism while at the same time supporting Quebec’s right to separate if that is what its residents choose (so far they haven’t). And never mind the disingenuousness of those who scream and rage at the prospect of a 50 percent plus one threshold for “destroying the country” while not uttering a peep about the routine formation of majority governments with less than 40 percent of the vote.

No, never mind any of that. The real issue comes down to the following question: is a simple majority of votes in a referendum enough to bestow legitimacy upon Quebec’s decision to secede? The answer, as is so often the case, is “yes and no.” It’s complicated.

The common federalist demand for a “clear majority” before agreeing to entertain the notion of secession (while rarely defining the threshold at which numbers become sufficiently clear) is understandable. If 51 percent of Quebeckers vote to separate, what happens if they change their minds after a year or two, as marginal majorities are wont to do? Would their new sovereign government offer them another referendum? Would the winning percentage still be 50 plus one? Would the rest of Canada even want them back? Such a low bar for secession could make things messy and unpredictable.

On the other hand, in the case of a virtually split province, why should the system be biased in favour federalism rather than separatism? Why must the supermajoritarian burden rest solely on the shoulders of sovereigntists? Simple majority rule has its faults, but surely minority rule is even worse.

There are no easy answers to this problem. What is needed is some kind of compromise, something that will satisfy both federalists and sovereigntists. I would like to humbly submit, as a possible candidate for such a compromise, what with characteristic appellative inspiration I call the “three-referendum rule.”

What I propose is that the Quebec provincial government, should it see fit to do so, hold a series of three referendums over the span of a decade — one every five years. All three referendums would, in the same unambiguous language, ask Quebec voters if they wish to form a separate country. Fifty percent plus one would be the necessary threshold for victory. If a majority votes “yes” in the first referendum, Quebec would remain a part of the Canadian federation for the time being, but would receive greater autonomy therein. If a majority votes “yes” a second time, Quebec’s autonomy would increase still further. And with a third “yes” vote, ten years after the first, Quebec would finally achieve the status of independent nation-state. If, however, any of the three referendums fails to produce the requisite simple majority of “yes” votes, the whole procedure would be sent back to square one.

While I believe this three-referendum rule to be the fairest secession formula on offer, there are undoubtedly some difficulties involved as well. It would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment in order to be put into effective use, and the nature of the stages of Quebec autonomy within the Canadian federation would need to be spelled out in detail. Furthermore, this secession formula must not be imposed unilaterally by one party on another. There has to be broad agreement by everyone involved — federal and provincial, federalist and sovereigntist — before the three-referendum rule can be put into practice.

And what if there is no such broad agreement? Then we must fall back on imperfect solutions. Even in the absence of three referendums held in five-year increments, approximations can be made. The principle of self-determination requires that decision makers glean whatever information they can to determine the will of the people of Quebec.

And a referendum, even just one, in which a simple majority of Quebec voters sends a message to the rest of Canada — well, that’s a pretty strong expression of the people’s will.

Quebection Projection

Apparently I haven’t learned my lesson since predicting a Peggy Nash victory in this year’s NDP leadership race. I may not have the statistical wherewithal or ear-to-the-ground perspicacity of an Eric Grenier, but I cannot resist the peculiar temptation — that siren song that has marked the downfall of politicos far greater than I — of making a forecast. Without further ado, here is what I think will happen in tomorrow’s provincial election in Quebec:

The Parti Quebecois will win a minority government. A relatively large minority — perhaps close enough to majority territory that Quebec solidaire’s two or so seats could help them fashion a workable coalition.

The Liberals, meanwhile, will make Official Opposition. Notwithstanding their second-place finish in seats, however, they will be relegated to third place in the popular vote at the hands of the upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec. Furthermore, Premier Charest will fail to carry his own riding.

Finally, Option nationale and my beloved Greens (despite my inexplicably unheeded endorsement) will win zero seats each. Or between them, I suppose.

Prove me wrong, Quebec. I dare you.

Update 4/9/2012: Quebec has proven me wrong. But only a little. By my count, I made eight predictions in the above post, two of which turned out wrong. Could have been much worse. Loyal readers of this blog are encouraged to identify and list all eight of my predictions in the comments section below. All who do so correctly will be rewarded with a limerick composed by yours truly.

Quebec’s Election: Endorsements and Analyses

Green Party of Quebec

Quebec politics are unique in North America because of the two distinct dimensions along which political battles are fought. In addition to the standard left-right dimension, there is the sovereignty-federalism one. For whatever reason, sovereigntists in the province have, as a general rule, tended to align themselves with the left, while federalists have tended to align themselves with the right.

This state of affairs leaves two gaping holes in the province’s crowded field of political parties. Right-wing separatists are largely without a home, and — somewhat surprisingly — so are progressive federalists. I say this is surprising because Quebec is widely regarded as the most left-leaning province in the country. And according to recent opinion polls, more Quebeckers would vote “no” in a sovereignty referendum than would vote “yes.” How could such apparently fertile ground for a successful left-wing federalist provincial party be overlooked? Have we learned nothing from the NDP’s surge in Quebec in last year’s federal election?

Instead, only three parties are thought to have any shot at governing at the provincial level: the Parti Quebecois, the Parti liberal du Quebec, and the Coalition Avenir Quebec. The Parti Quebecois now appears almost certain to win the upcoming election on September 4, but there remain two unknowns. First, who will form the Official Opposition? The incumbent Liberals are no longer guaranteed a second-place finish, but they cannot be ruled out yet.

Second, will the PQ win a majority or a minority government? The latter might yield the best of all possible worlds from a progressive federalist standpoint. The inevitable negotiations between parties that accompany minority governments could result in some heretofore unexplored political compromises — namely, the passage of left-wing legislation without risk of secession.

But it is risky to count on something like that. Theoretically, a minority government could just as easily result in right-wing sovereignty. So what are progressive federalists to do? In casting their ballots, should they prioritize the national question or the left-right spectrum?

The opinion-makers of English Canada will not like to hear this, but the case could be made that the latter is more important. Even if the Parti Quebecois gets a majority, a separate, stand-alone referendum will be necessary before Quebec declares independence. No such second vote will take place on socioeconomic issues like taxation, spending, and regulation.

Does that mean that progressive federalists should feel perfectly fine about voting for sovereigntist parties? Of course not. I certainly wouldn’t. But sometimes difficult choices have to be made.

With that lengthy introduction out of the way, I hereby present my endorsements for the 2012 Quebec election (not that anyone asked!). Here I rank the major parties in order of preference:

1. Parti vert du Quebec

Anyone who regularly reads this blog (anyone?) knows of my well-established bias in favour of Green parties. But this is especially so in Quebec, where the Greens are literally the only progressive federalists among the six largest parties. Plus, they’re green! Sadly, since they are only running candidates in just over half of the ridings, any Quebec voter who does not have the opportunity to vote Green is advised to keep reading.

2. Quebec solidaire

“A party of the ballot box and of the street” as it styles itself, Quebec solidaire is the electoral wing of radical left-wing social movements in Quebec. Composed of environmental, social justice, and anti-war activists, the party seeks to fight the neoliberalism it identifies with the larger parties, and is the electoral force most enthusiastically supportive of this year’s student protest movement against tuition hikes. Unfortunately, Quebec solidaire is also a sovereigntist party, but it does not value independence for its own sake. Rather, it envisions a nation-state of Quebec as part of a broader project of social progress and inclusion.

3. Parti Quebecois

As far as I am concerned, the widest gap in this ranking is between my second and third choices. The Parti Quebecois, this election’s likely victor, is a moderate social democratic party. On the downside, not only is it Quebec’s foremost advocate of separation, but as has been widely reported in the English Canadian media, it has in recent years taken a turn for the xenophobic. The party is proposing a “Charter of Secularism” that would bar public employees from wearing religious symbols such as hijabs, yarmulkes, and turbans on the job, although inexplicably, Christian symbols would be exempt. The only reason I am not ranking the PQ lower on my list is that such discriminatory legislation will almost certainly be ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

4. Parti liberal du Quebec

Don’t let the name fool you. The Liberals are Quebec’s conservatives. Their leader was the head of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and during their recent years in power, their agenda has been defined by draconian cuts to taxes and spending. Just this year, the government inadvertently unleashed a hellstorm in the streets all over Quebec when it drastically increased university tuition fees and subsequently limited the rights of students to protest. On the national question, the PLQ is federalist, but that does not exonerate its reactionary policies.

5. Coalition Avenir Quebec

The upstart Coalition Avenir Quebec in some respects combines the worst of the PQ and the PLQ. Like the latter, it is a party of austerity. But despite silence on the subject from the fawning English Canadian media, it shares some of the Parti Quebecois’ discriminatory policies against religious minorities. The CAQ also tries to have it both ways on the sovereignty issue. While its leader, a former PQ cabinet minister, is widely believed to still be a separatist, the party is proposing a moratorium on sovereignty referendums until the province has put its economy in order.

6. Option nationale

An offshoot of the PQ, Option nationale is more stridently focussed on separation than its parent party. Unlike the mainstream sovereigntist movement, this small left-wing party does not want to wait for a referendum. A majority Option nationale government would consider itself to have a mandate to seek immediate autonomy from the Canadian federal government, which it would eventually formalize as full-on sovereignty after a referendum on a new Quebec constitution. Granted, Quebec’s independence would not be official until this final popular endorsement, but the fact that the party would start to put the wheels of secession in motion before it is approved by a majority of Quebeckers strikes me as fundamentally anti-democratic. As I have stated before, I have always considered the principled insistence on a referendum by Quebec separatists a sign of respectability in a movement I otherwise disagree with.

The Forgotten Issues of Quebec’s Student Strike

Higher education

The ongoing three-month strike by Quebec university students over tuition increases has sparked near-unanimous outrage from members of Canada’s mainstream commentariat — and not just over the violence, but over the very content of what students are demanding.

What do these spoiled rich kids have to protest against, the pundits wail, when already they pay the lowest tuition in Canada, and Canadian tuition in general is but a fraction of that in the United States? They are unrealistic. They feel entitled. In Andrew Coyne’s words: “The student leaders, at this point, are absolutely delusional in their sense of their importance to the universe.”

What is rarely included in this chorus of condemnation is an honest look at higher education elsewhere in the world. Dozens of countries offer free post-secondary education — not just in wealthy Northern Europe, but also in Cuba, Sri Lanka, and Botswana. In some cases, they share these benefits with international students as well as citizens, and even offer cost-of-living allowances. There is nothing in the Canadian experience that would make it impossible for us to gradually implement such practices. It is simply a matter of using tax dollars to spread the costs around — something we already do with K-12 education.

Some object that students are the ones who primarily benefit from their education, and therefore they should be the ones to pay. But this argument fails to acknowledge that society as a whole gains from a highly educated population.

However, if people decide that students should be made to sacrifice something for the benefit of a higher education, perhaps conditions could be placed on free tuition. For instance, graduates could have their student debts wiped clean in return for working a certain number of years in whatever jurisdiction offers them the deal. The number of years required could even be reduced if the student agrees to spend them working somewhere deemed especially important — such as remote rural communities or perhaps the developing world.

Another common objection to free tuition is that it is highly regressive. Most university students come from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, this argument runs. To divert society’s resources for their benefit, by reducing or eliminating tuition fees, only increases the problem of inequality.

In a way this is true, but we must realize that it becomes less true as the cost of education drops. Tuition fees are a barrier to higher education — especially for those with low incomes. They may not be the only barrier, or even the most important. Some evidence shows that parental influence and early formative experiences play a larger role in determining whether or not an individual will attend university. But while tuition fees may not be the whole problem, they are certainly a substantial part of it. Any comprehensive program to make post-secondary education more accessible for everyone — regardless of one’s finances — ought to include the phasing out of tuition fees.

Equality of opportunity is what it all comes down to. In the current war of words over the Quebec student strike — over the behaviour of that “self-serving, self-satisfied, self-dramatizing collection of idiots” (quoting the inexhaustible Andrew Coyne once again) — I hope that this basic principle does not get buried.

Electoral Reform — the Wrong Way

Distributing copies of the Canadian Charter of...

The Quebec-based group l’Association pour la revendication des droits démocratiques is nearing the end of the legal battle it started in 2004.  After early losses in the lower courts, it is taking its case against Quebec’s (and by implication Canada’s) first-past-the-post electoral system to the nation’s Supreme Court, with the backing of Fair Vote Canada and Green leader Elizabeth May.  It will argue, with some justification, that first-past-the-post violates the “democratic rights” and “equality rights” provisions (sections 3 and 15) of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I am reluctant to admit this — both as a strong supporter of proportional representation and as a Green Party member — but I think this is the wrong approach.  While it is true that there is evidence in some opinion polls of vague support for electoral reform in Canada, every time a concrete question is placed on a referendum ballot, proportional voting systems seem to lose their popularity.  I understand that this is frustrating, but it would be unfair for proportional representation advocates, having failed to convince the public, to turn around and sneak their changes in through the judicial back door.  Societies have a right to any electoral system of their choosing, and at the very least, ours has not yet made up its mind.

In 2003, a small number of Quebec sovereigntists proposed the abandonment of their longstanding call for a referendum on independence, preferring instead to read the election of a Parti Quebecois majority government as a sufficient mandate for secession.  The mainstream of the sovereignty movement swiftly rejected this idea, understanding that the principle of independence by referendum had always been at its heart.  There is something admirable in this recognition that there is a right way to go about achieving change, and a wrong way.

I never thought I’d say this, but electoral reformers could learn a thing or two from Quebec separatists.