Ottawa

The Mulcair agenda for constitutional change

Paul Wells on the NDP bill on secession referendums

Fred Chartrand/CP

Miracles still happen. For instance, this morning Norman Spector had a point. The most interesting thing in the NDP bill on secession referendums is its 9th paragraph. It deserves more attention.

Mostly the bill is a shrine to Paragraph 88 of the Supreme Court’s opinion on the 1998 Secession Reference. As I wrote last night in numbing detail, any victory dance over an “obligation to negotiate” secession should entail some serious thought about what those negotiations would be like, and there’s none here. But then there’s a bonus:

9. For greater certainty, the question concerning the constitutional change may include proposals to implement recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, such as proposals relating to

(a) the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework;

(b) the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec;

(c) permanent tax transfers and associated standards; and

(d) the Government of Quebec’s opting out with full compensation from any programs if the Government of Canada intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

“For greater certainty” is not quite the right phrasing, because there’s no certainty needed: a question concerning constitutional change (that is, as the rest of the bill makes clear, a referendum question on constitutional change) could be about anything under the stars. There’s no need to provide a list. So Mulcair and the Toronto MP who’s fronting on this bill provide a list for a different reason: because they want to trumpet their willingness to pursue this agenda for constitutional change.

I’d endorse, or would at any rate not worry much about, every item on this list. The first one’s my favourite. I do hope we’ll avoid a referendum on “the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework,” because Quebec is already integrated into the constitutional framework. That was easy! Items (b) through (d) are variations on a limitation of the federal spending power, although I suspect we could enjoy many fun hours asking Mulcair to reconcile “associated standards” with a right to “[opt] out with full compensation.” That very debate used to fill the newspapers from 1987 to 1992. If you’re too young to remember, count your blessings.

But I’m actually a pretty lenient audience on constitutional issues. The notion that Mulcair is setting the table for a round of referendums and constitutional amendments on a uniquely Quebec-oriented set of issues would, if it ever got a lot of attention, provoke a variety of different reactions in the rest of Canada. Meanwhile, what hasn’t much been noticed is how little love his little bill is receiving from Quebec nationalists, who don’t want any federal bill infringing on Quebec referendum practice. The same audience would seriously not love Mulcair’s Paragraph 9, which deals with precisely one of the five conditions the Meech Lake accord was meant to address.

For greater certainty, what I mean is that the Quebec government in which Thomas Mulcair served as a cabinet minister would never have endorsed the constitution under the terms offered by the NDP Mulcair now leads.