Sunday, November 20, 2005

Referendum III: A Clear Question For A Clear Victory

The next premier of Quebec (and likely its last pre-independence one) will not submit his secession referendum question to the provisions of the federal Clarity Act.

In an interview with the all-news channel RDI to be aired Sunday, Andre Boisclair says independence is up to Quebecers only and he sees no reason to submit to the federal Clarity Act.

Boisclair argues that sovereignty is a not a legal decision, but a political one and that voters will have the last word.

He maintains the province's legislature has the authority to oversee the process.

Boisclair, who met with senior party officials on Saturday, has said he wants to see a referendum as soon as possible in the first mandate of a PQ government even though most opinion polls have suggested Quebecers don't want another referendum.

Boisclair is being disingenuous here: the Clarity Act doesn't require the feds to write the question and run the vote, only to determine whether the question is clear enough for its purposes to enter into secession negotiations:

3) In considering the clarity of a referendum question, the House of Commons shall consider whether the question would result in a clear expression of the will of the population of a province on whether the province should cease to be part of Canada and become an independent state.

(4) For the purpose of subsection (3), a clear expression of the will of the population of a province that the province cease to be part of Canada could not result from

(a) a referendum question that merely focuses on a mandate to negotiate without soliciting a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on whether the province should cease to be part of Canada; or

(b) a referendum question that envisages other possibilities in addition to the secession of the province from Canada, such as economic or political arrangements with Canada, that obscure a direct expression of the will of the population of that province on whether the province should cease to be part of Canada.

I have never understood the reluctance of the Parti Quebecois to ask a clear question in either referendum; perhaps they believe too strongly in the conventional wisdom that Quebeckers would reject independence if there were no prospect of a common market or dual citizenship afterwards.

The conventional wisdom, I think, actually insults the intelligence of most Quebeckers. They would vote YES overwhelmingly for independence if they were ever asked an unambiguous question; they don't need to be tricked into it with false promises about nothing really changing. The longer and more convoluted the question, the more likely the voters think something is being put over on them, and the more likely they are to vote NO.

The 1980 question, which was defeated by 59.6% to 40.4% (and by about 53% of francophone voters), is a model of ambiguity which only asked the voters to vote for negotiating an agreement that itself would have to be put to another referendum:

The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, administer its taxes and establish relations abroad - in other words, sovereignty - and at the same time, to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will be submitted to the people through a referendum; ON THESE TERMS, DO YOU AGREE TO GIVE THE GOVERNMENT OF QUEBEC THE MANDATE TO NEGOTIATE THE PROPOSED AGREEMENT BETWEEN QUEBEC AND CANADA?

No wonder why the question was rejected by three to two: if nothing was going to really change after such a vote, why vote YES?

The 1995 question, though narrowly defeated by 50.6% to 49.4%, still won about 60% of the francophone vote. Just by being a little clearer and shorter, it probably attracted more people to vote YES. Nonetheless, it still assumed that voters had background knowledge about the referendum legislation that few would have had:

"Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?"

A question like this, which would force Quebeckers to make a clear and unqualified choice, would almost certainly be a winner:

"Do you want Quebec to secede from Canada and become an independent country?"

The Parti Quebecois needs to overcome its timidity about asking for secession without an economic safety net. The committed separatist vote will take sovereignty, with or without an association. The francophone federalist vote's commitment to its cause is much weaker, as its supporters generally do not believe in Canadian unity for its own sake but in Robert Bourassa's cynical federalisme rentable. Offer them independance rentable and they will vote for it en masse .

Source: CTV

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