National 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.