Thomas Mulcair's Clarity problem

Thomas Mulcair’s Clarity problem

Why, in an otherwise strong debate, did the NDP leader tread into the dangerous quicksand of Quebec separatism?



At about the midpoint of last night’s debate, during an otherwise necessary chat about the state of democratic institutions, things veered into a constitutional abstraction of the sort that has obsessed this country’s political class for a half century. It lasted about five minutes and was prompted by Justin Trudeau, who looks younger than his 43 years but, at that moment at least, could have passed for pater Pierre Elliott circa 1968, shaking his fists at the evil Quebec separatists in our midst.

“One of the things that really frustrates a lot of people is when they see politicians pander, when they say one thing in one part of the country and a different thing in another part of the country. One of the things that unfortunately Mr. Mulcair has been doing quite regularly is talking in French about his desire to repeal the Clarity Act, to make it easier for those who want to break up this country to actually do so. And in doing so, he is actually disagreeing with the Supreme Court judgment that said one vote is not enough to break up the country.”

    The Clarity Act was wrought by Jean Chrétien’s government in 2000 to try and address the question born in 1995’s Quebec referendum, which the No side won by all of 54,288 votes: would it have been enough to separate the country had the Yes side won by as many (or fewer) votes? The Supreme Court’s answer was no: a province would need a “clear majority.” Except no one defined what, exactly, constituted this clear majority. The resulting lack of clarity has obsessed Canada’s political class and legions of its journalists ever since.

    Three things usually happen whenever this issue is brought up in a federal campaign. First, chest puffed, each leader will say what good Canadians they are. Then the others will say how irrelevant it is to talk about separatism, because Quebec’s sovereignty movement is stuck somewhere between cryogenic sleep and outright death. Finally, they do exactly that—talk about an apparently irrelevant issue. For over 50 years, it’s been our political quicksand: impossible to avoid, and even harder to escape.

    True to form and slave to tradition, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair gamely responded, “I’ve fought for Canada my whole life,” Mulcair said. Then: “The only two people I know in Canada who are anxious to start talking about separatism again are Justin Trudeau and Gilles Duceppe.”

    And then, Mulcair himself became very anxious to discuss separatism. “Mr. Trudeau has an obligation, if he wants to talk about this subject, to come clean with Canadians. What’s his number? What is your number, Mr. Trudeau?” (There isn’t one. As Mulcair well knows, the Clarity Act is decidedly unclear on this.)

    By the by, that Trudeau blunted Mulcair’s staged fury with his answer—”Nine. My number is nine. Nine Supreme Court justices said one vote is not enough to break up this country, and yet that is Mr. Mulcair’s position,” Trudeau said—is the NDP’s own fault. Just before the debate, the Huffington’s Post’s Althia Raj published a piece in which she quoted a senior NDP source saying Trudeau should expect Mulcair to attack him on the Clarity Act question. This effectively gave the Liberals two months to come up with the pithy answer we saw last night.

    Political points aside, both Trudeau and Mulcair would do well to look at Quebec today, if only to see how misplaced that obsession over sovereignty has become. Since the Clarity Act became law, the Parti Québécois has been in power for less than five of the last 15 years; the one time the party won an election, in 2012, was out of a general state of fury toward Jean Charest’s Liberals—and even then, the PQ couldn’t muster a majority. In 2014, party leader Pauline Marois and company couldn’t even utter the word “referendum,” for fear of losing the election. Instead, the PQ ran on its “Quebec values charter,” sovereignty’s grotesque surrogate, in which the party attempted to stoke the nationalist flame by scapegoating religious minorities. It lost the election regardless.

    Pierre Trudeau had plenty of enemies at which to shake his fist in 1968, but he, like so many of them, is no longer with us. While Quebec separatism isn’t dead, the issue hardly seems to deserve airtime in a national debate. “You’re trying to throw gasoline on a fire that isn’t even burning,” as Prime Minister Stephen Harper nicely put it. Of course, this was right after he accused Mulcair of trying to placate “the separatist elements within the NDP.”

    There may well be a few separatists lurking about in the NDP, just as there is a whack of former Bloquistes in the Conservative party. The “separatist elements” are actually Quebec voters who migrated massively to the NDP in 2011; the NDP and the Bloc Québécois are ideologically similar, save for the whole Quebec separation thing. For most soft nationalists, a repeal of the Clarity Act would be a big enough fig leaf to vote for a federalist party. Hence Mulcair’s promise, made in French, to do just this.

    Mulcair’s otherwise strong debate was hampered somewhat by the weight of high expectations. Mulcair should have kept his focus on Harper, and he lent Trudeau legitimacy just by engaging the Liberal leader. Mulcair’s plan to abolish the Senate, meanwhile, looks more and more like an electoral prop. He knows full well Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard is steadfast against such a thing—even if, as Mulcair awkwardly noted, he is good friends with Couillard.

    Mulcair has to retain his Quebec beachhead of 54 seats in the coming election. Being sidelined by Trudeau, and ultimately falling into the political quicksand of sovereigntist-baiting, is a digression he can hardly afford.



    Thomas Mulcair’s Clarity problem

    1. What I got from that exchange is that Mr. Mulcair feels bound to act by the decisions of the NDP membership regardless of the decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada. I think that’s unworthy of a prime minister. A PM is not the puppet of his party’s membership. He is bound by the constitution, by Canadian law.

      As for his question “What is your number, Mr. Trudeau?”, Mr. Mulcair should realize that the prime minister who will make the decision to negotiate secession with a Quebec government will not be an MP from a Quebec riding, so it doesn’t matter what Justin Trudeau’s number is. A PM from Quebec facing this situation would be pressed to resign as PM.

      Do Canadians want to erase the Clarity Act from the books?

    2. Trudeau did what the MSM can’t stand, is he stood up to what he believed in, and Mulcair looked like Iggy, aloof, but the MSM won’t admit that, because he was on some kind of drug last night to keep his temper at a certain level, he was like a deer in the headlights. Mulcair had Harper standing 2 feet from him and couldn’t look him straight in the eye. The Perry Mason of the HOCs had his ass whipped by the same guy he said would wipe the floor with him(Trudeau). Trudeau won that debate hands down, Harper another one speaking with the nervous sound in his voice was also shut down by Trudeau over senate scandal, 59 senators and Harper wouldn’t take responsibility for any of their insatiable appetite to suck from the taxpayers trough. I think the real public saw this debate, not the same way as the MSM, they saw that Trudeau has the gonads to be PM as much as the other 2 Zombies, and yes Harper had sweat beading off of his forehead as he read his final speech, not sure it was a speech, some mumbo jumbo, and Harper does a Houdini out the back door. Liz may was good until halfway through, then she went down a rabbit hole becoming rhetorical with harper. This MSM can not stand to see Trudeau win and doing there damnedest to shoot him down every time. Thom Mulcair was just like Iggy in that debate, ALOOF.

    3. The reason why Mulcair’s position on this is relevant is because it goes hand in hand with his pledge to reopen the constitution to abolish the Senate. That cannot be accomplished without negotiating with the provinces, and the last time we did that in this country Quebec left the table without getting what they wanted, and that lead to the last referendum.

    4. Justin should learn not to raise a question that one is unable or unprepared to answer oneself.
      The 50% plus one threshold for separation is accepted by the mother of parliaments: evrery UK party -including the UK Liberals – accept the 50% plus one threshold for the Scottish separation referendum!
      And Nfld entered confederation after attaining a 50% plus one threshold.
      Justin was asked four times for the threshold he would wish – and four times refused to answer!
      That’s leadership! LOL!
      Justin’s constant interruptions and shouting became annoying – perhaps he can display respect for others – and the audience – next time!

      • Quoting from the Sherbrooke resolution: “The NDP will recognize a majority decision (50% plus 1) of the Quebec people in the event of a referendum on the political status of Quebec.”

        Do you see the word “vote” in there?

        If I may ask you, do you think this means 50 % plus 1 %, or 50 % plus 1 vote? Cause that’s the problem I have with Mr. Mulcair. When he speaks in English he says 50% plus 1 but when he shows up in Quebec in a French crowd he says 50 % plus one vote. They are not the same thing.

        Fifty percent plus 1 percent would mean a gap of about 6,000s votes in a referendum where 6 million voters, while a one vote gap when six million ballots are counted and thousands are rejected may not be viewed as conclusive by the international community. It would likely be contested in court by some citizens. There is a difference between theory and reality, and the fact is that there has never been a country created on the strength of one ballot out of a six million ballots, with thousands of ballots being rejected. It may be a theoretical rule, but it has never been tested.

        Furthermore, I wouldn’t be so sure about the view of Westminster. Not so simple.

        • In a democracy 50% plus one vote is a majority, n’est ce pas?
          As Tom Mulcair points out an NDP federal gov’t would develop respectful -on-going relationships with all provinces including Quebec so the “conditions” for separation will never occur!
          It is simple – if Justin and you do not accept the democratic threshold of 50% plus one vote then what threshold is acceptable to you?
          Tom asked Justin – four times – and all he got was another glib, irrelevant answer.
          That’s not leadership – it’s gamesmanship with a serious democratic issue.

          • According to Wiki, the Scottish referendum required a simple majority to pass, by definition a vote of more than 50 %. The Edinburgh Agreement signed by Cameron, Sturgeon, et al stated the conditions under which a referendum would be held, including:

            “The governments are agreed that the referendum should:…
            •• deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.”


            If Mr. Mulcair were to proceed with his proposal and include the Marois formula, 50 % plus one vote, then we should insist that he includes a tie-breaking mechanism.

            An exact 50-50 result is as (un)likely as a 50% plus one vote result. Should we expect that because Mulcair is such a nice man everyone would go back home and pretend nothing happened? Nobody won, nobody lost, it’s 50-50? Who cares? Or should someone (Mulcair?) toss a coin?

            I can’t imagine any of this happening. Mr. Mulcair is pandering, saying one thing in English and another in French. I think there has to be room for the duly elected representatives of the people of Canada to exercise their good judgment should they have to agree to the partition of this country. Our politicians should deal with these things in the context of a referendum, as was the case in the UK. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Harper are right. Leave the Clarity Act as is.

            And no, the democratic rule is not strictly 50 % plus one vote. There are other types of votes that are democratic otherwise a lot, most, of our MPs could not claim democratic legitimacy.

          • @ Ron Faris
            Unfortunately when dealing with an organization like the PQ one needs to fight their opaque referendum questions with an equally opaque/hypothetical response. Sir, I’ve lived in Quebec my entire life, I am of mixed heritage, Francophone father and Anglophone mother – I know a thing or two about the tactics Quebec nationalists use. In an ideal world I agree with you that a 50% +1 is a fair and democratic benchmark. I would support 50% +1 only on these conditions

            1. Clear question agreed to by both the Quebec legislature and the parliament of Canada
            2. International observers at the polling stations

            Unfortunately the PQ would never agree to a simple clear question as was the case in the Scottish referendum. They will never agree to this because they know they would lose. The PQ is currently being led by Pierre Karl Peladeau, a man even members of the PQ have described as a Plutocrat and Megalomaniac. A man like PKP will take the honorable goals of the Sherbrooke Declaration (SD) and twist them to his advantage and ultimately make the SD work against Canada.
            For the reasons mentioned above the Clarity Act is, albeit sadly, a necessary component the rest of Canada (RoC) needs when dealing with the Quebec nationalist/separatist movement. Sadly because of the Sherbrooke Declaration I will not be giving my vote to the NDP

      • Well that is all well and good. Unfortunately none of that is relevant since our Supreme Court says something else, so…

      • Your comparison with the Scottish referendum is a little off the mark. A key fact you seem to want to gloss over is that referendum occurred only after an agreement was reached with the UK and Scottish parliament to allow the referendum, to accept a simple majority and to respect the effects of the vote. In a recent statement the British PM has clearly stated he would not entertain another referendum. Scotland like Quebec does not have the power to force a separation by unilateral act. The Scottish referendum occurred under the constitutional authority of the British Parliament (representing the Crown) and not at the whim of the Scotish Parliament.

        Unlike in the UK situation, Mulcair has not stated that the 50% plus 1 criteria would only apply in the case of a referendum that follows from an agreement between the Canadian and Quebec gov’t and with Federal involvement and oversight in the campaign, (which might be acceptable under the SCC ruling). In fact he seems to be saying that a referendum would essentially be at the discretion of the Quebec gov’t and outside of a simple majority of votes in whatever circumstances, nothing else should be required to trigger negotiation on Quebec seperation. In effect he seems to be willing to shrug away Federal authority under the Constitution and as a representative of all Canadians.

        The agreement leading to the Scottish referendum also allowed campaigning by the federal or outside parties, which I believe was barred in the last Quebec referendum. In the UK also, I believe that UK parliament is the sole constutional authority, with the remote possibility of intervention by the Monarchy. In Canada, the provinces would also have to approve the constitutional changes required to allow seperation. A 50% plus one majority without more, could lead to other provincial leaders refusing to consider the issue, rightly so I think, given the economic, geographic and political reality of Canada.

        • What an excellent explanation Gayle1 – I enjoyed reading that and found it very clear and concise. Thank you. Keep it ready – it will be used a lot in the future! These ignorant separatists in Quebec just do not get it and will drive us to civil war before they are finished. They have fooled the Quebec people long enough with their lies and dreams and I really wish we had just one politician in this rotten province that would tell it like it really is as you did!

    5. Mulcair had a point; if the answer to separatism is so vague, then it will give people the impression of false hope. There needs to be a clear answer so voters in Quebec will have clear consequences.