"There isn’t a crazy appetite for sovereignty"—Pauline Marois

My colleague Alec Castonguay, who toils over at our sister publication L’actualité, posted a first-rate interview with Pauline Marois earlier this week that’s a must-read for anyone interested in the Parti Québécois’ ongoing travails. Among the things that stood out to me was Marois’s apparent doubling-down on the policies that drove away four members of her caucus earlier this summer—namely, her insistence that a referendum shouldn’t be top-of-mind for the party. Of the nascent Nouveau Mouvement pour le Québec, aka the new home of sovereigntist hardliners in Quebec, Marois says they “should start from where Quebecers are at… There isn’t a crazy appetite for sovereignty, even if polls have us at 40-45 per cent ,” she says. (CROP pegs support for sovereignty at 38 per cent and Léger at 36 per cent, but let’s not quibble.) “Renewal isn’t about waiting for the referendum.”

Good government—which, unfortunately for Charest, is more or less synonymous with “change” these days— is what Marois wants the PQ to focus on delivering. Creating a second chamber at the National Assembly that would focus on regional issues, taking over control of EI from Ottawa, increasing the constraints on companies who extract resources from Quebec’s northern regions, and broad efforts at democratic renewal are all part of what Marois describes as the PQ’s plan for “sovereigntist governance.” “The government’s actions are what will show that Quebec deserves to have all the tools to blossom.”

To the extent that people have grown deeply dissatistified with the way things are managed in Quebec, Marois would appear to be onto something. The Léger poll cited above, for instance, shows a staggering 73 per cent of respondents think Quebec is headed in the wrong direction, with 44 per cent saying dramatic change is needed. So why isn’t Marois’s message getting across? Why has support for the PQ free fallen from 41 per cent a year go to 24 per cent today?

The gong show that is the party’s internal politics certainly hasn’t helped. Nor has Marois’s penchant for playing a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t shell game with the referendum question. Recall that Marois was not so long ago promising “a rupture with the waiting game” and to provoke crises with the federal government to jumpstart support for independence. (Incidentally, I’ve always found it odd that the PQ would so openly posit sovereignty as a solution in search of a problem.) But the biggest factor has been François Legault’s emergence as the chief reformist figure in the province.

Like the NDP did to the Bloc on the federal scene, Legault has been able to put the squeeze on PQ by making it choose between a commitment to sovereignty and a commitment to government. (In the Bloc’s case, this took the form of a challenge to its social democratic platform, which it opted to downplay, allowing the NDP to sweep in and drink the party’s milkshake.) And a big reason Legault has gained so much traction is that, like Jack Layton, he’s not seen as an interloper. The bona fides he earned during his days in the PQ government have so far made it hard to paint him into a corner on identity and culture issues. So Marois is now trying to one-up him on policy issues instead.

That could all change Monday, though, when Legault and Charles Sirois (the forgotten, decidedly more federalist co-creator of the imaginary party Legault is presumed to lead) reveal their positions on language and culture. You can bet Marois and the rest of the PQ will be looking for the slightest whiff of something they’ll be able to present as a sell-out policy. And if they find it, all bets are off regarding Marois’s sudden appetite for good government above all else.