Provincial NDP leaders dodge federal party's unpopular unity bill

OTTAWA – Federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair isn’t getting much support from his provincial counterparts for his controversial approach to national unity — and new poll may help explain why.

The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey suggests almost three-quarters of Canadians don’t buy Mulcair’s assertion that a bare majority of 50 per cent plus one vote should be sufficient to trigger negotiations on Quebec secession.

Indeed, on average, respondents pegged the ideal threshold at 64 per cent.

The telephone poll was conducted Feb. 7-10, as The Canadian Press was soliciting the opinions of provincial NDP leaders to the federal party’s recently proposed “unity bill.”

Only one — New Brunswick’s Dominic Cardy — offered unqualified support. One other — British Columbia’s Adrian Dix — was openly opposed.

The rest kept their distance from the contentious bill, declining specific comment on what most maintained is a purely federal matter.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger avoided commenting on the bill altogether. In a statement issued on the premier’s behalf, his office said the province’s NDP government is focused on its priorities of “growing the economy, through uncertain times, while protecting the things that matter most to families.”

“We know New Democrat MPs share those priorities and are committed to building a better, stronger Canada. In Quebec, one of the best ways to build a stronger, united Canada is electing federalist MPs and Tom Mulcair deserves credit for helping elect so many NDP MPs that are working to build our country.”

Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter’s office said the federal unity bill “contributes to the discussion of how the federal government would undertake its role (regarding secession) as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“Premier Dexter was consulted on the bill but he regards this as a matter for Parliament.”

The bill is intended to replace the Clarity Act — introduced by former Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien after Quebecers came within a hair of voting to secede in 1995 — which stipulates that a clear majority of Quebecers would have to vote Yes on a clear referendum question on separation before the federal government would feel obligated to discuss the terms of a divorce.

The act does not define what is meant by a clear majority, an ambiguity Mulcair says the unity bill is meant to clear up.

The NDP bill stipulates that a bare majority of 50 per cent plus one vote would trigger secession negotiations, provided that the referendum question was clear and there were no irregularities in the conduct of the vote.

The poll suggests the bill is not going down well outside Quebec.

Nationally, 49 per cent were opposed to it, 35 per cent supported it. Support was highest in Quebec, at 57 per cent.

However, disagreement with the bill’s central premise deepened, even in Quebec, when respondents were asked what, in their view, would constitute a sufficiently clear majority to prompt negotiations on the break-up of the country.

Nationally, 29 per cent said the threshold should be more than 70 per cent, 23 per cent said it should be between 60 and 69 per cent and another 21 per cent said it should be between 51 and 59 per cent. That’s fully 73 per cent who believed the threshold for negotiating secession should be higher than the NDP’s proposed 50-plus-one-vote.

In Quebec, 75 per cent said the threshold should be higher than a bare majority. On average, Quebecers pegged the ideal threshold at just under 60 per cent.

Even among those who identified themselves as NDP supporters, the average preferred threshold was just less than 63 per cent.

The poll of just over 1,000 Canadians is considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

The results may explain why most provincial NDP leaders and premiers refused to be interviewed about the bill, choosing instead to issue statements that offered praise for their federal brethren while avoiding any specific comment on the unity bill.

“I’m proud of Tom and the NDP team that’s been able to provide a strong voice for federalists in Quebec,” said Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in a statement.

“I know NDP MPs are working hard to find solutions that build a stronger, united Canada. Meanwhile, my focus is on creating jobs, improving health care and making life affordable here in Ontario.”

Similarly, a spokesperson for Lorraine Michael said the Newfoundland and Labrador NDP leader “feels that this is a federal issue, with discussion best left to the federal party and caucus. We have perfect faith that Thomas Mulcair, (Newfoundland NDP MPs) Jack Harris, Ryan Cleary and the rest of the caucus are doing the best for the country.”

A spokesperson for Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason said he “feels that the Clarity Act issue is better left under the jurisdiction of the federal party and leader.”

Prince Edward Island NDP Leader Mike Redmond did not respond to requests for comment. There is no provincial NDP in Quebec and the party currently has no permanent leader in Saskatchewan, where New Democrats are in the midst of a leadership race.

B.C.’s Dix was alone in openly criticizing the unity bill. He said he’s concerned that the 50-plus-one-vote threshold is too low and that the bill excludes any role for the provinces in judging the clarity of a referendum question and its result and diminishes their role in any negotiations that would follow a Yes vote.

“I think B.C. should play a role in that process and I’ve been clear about that from the beginning,” he said in an interview.

“That said, Thomas Mulcair is right on one critical point, which is that we have to win referendums and it is a very positive thing that we have federalist MPs from Quebec fighting for Canada instead of separatist MPs fighting to destroy Canada.”

Still, Dix said he supports the Clarity Act, as federal New Democrats did when it was passed in 2000, and doesn’t want it amended or repealed.

By contrast, New Brunswick’s Cardy said he’s “really impressed and happy” with the unity bill.

“The Clarity Act has lacked clarity and we’re trying to shine a little bit of light on it and make it work better,” Cardy said in an interview.

To those who believe the threshold for negotiating secession should be 60 per cent or more, Cardy said: “I would just ask everyone to think about what would happen if there was, let’s say, a 55 per cent vote for independence and the rest of the country said no to that. What sort of country would that really be?

“That’s why we’ve got to avoid that sort of a situation, which I think is the intent of the unity act and I think it does a good job.”

In any event, Cardy said the point of the NDP’s approach to Quebec, which delivered 59 of its 75 seats to New Democrats in the last election, is to avoid any future referendums on independence.

“Arguing back and forth about whether 50 or 55 per cent is enough to hold the country together misses the broader picture, which is we need to have a country where that is not an issue because we don’t have a referendum because people want to stay in Canada, including Quebec.”

With files from Keith Leslie and Dirk Meissner

Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous story wrongly spelled the name of New Brunswick’s NDP leader

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