By Chantel Hebert
Prime Minister Stephen Harper need not keep the Justice Department on 24/7 standby to determine whether the federal government has grounds to launch a court challenge of the Parti Quebecois' proposed charter on so-called Quebec values.
The plan as it stands now is more likely to become a central part of the PQ platform in a provincial election than to be passed into law in the current National Assembly.
In an ideal world for Premier Pauline Marois, that election would come sooner rather than later - possibly before the end of the year.
From the timing of the charter's presentation - at the earliest practical moment after the summer - to the heavy government advertising artillery that is being deployed to sell it at public cost, all signs point to a no-holds barred effort to decisively move the needle of public opinion toward the PQ.
The next few polls on voting intentions will tell whether that movement materializes. But if it does, it will be hard to sustain. More so than any other past PQ initiatives, this one repels a vocal section of Quebec's civil society, with opposition stretching over the federalist/sovereigntist divide.
Moreover, Marois and her government cannot hope to keep voters mobilized behind measures that have no impact on the daily lives of the vast majority of them on an open-ended basis.
It is hardly a secret that the PQ would like to return to the polls on its own terms rather than wait for the opposition majority in the National Assembly to terminate its minority mandate. In this, it is no different from any other government in a similar predicament.
If the timing is left to the Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec, chances are the day of reckoning for the PQ will come around the time of the spring budget. At that point Quebec's lacklustre economic performance rather than the charter would be front and centre in the campaign.
It is a scenario that the PQ would dearly like to avoid. Quebec's job market is stagnant and the government's promise to balance the books in the spring will not be fulfilled unless Marois embarks on a fresh round of spending cuts.
That's why PQ strategists will be looking hard at the next batch of polls for signs of the momentum the party needs to seek re-election.
But a provincial round of municipal elections in early November forecloses the option of holding a snap Quebec vote before Dec. 9. Between now and then, a lot of contrary water will have flown under the charter bridge.
For instance, the main contenders in Montreal's mayoral campaign are united in their rejection of the secular dress code the PQ would impose on public sector employees. If that obligation ever becomes law, the next Montreal administration will opt out of the charter's prescriptions.
Much has already been said about the unanimous opposition of the main federal leaders to the PQ plan and the risk that it might put them on a collision course with some of their Quebec MPs. But so far the first charter-induced cracks on Parliament Hill have surfaced on the sovereigntist side of the spectrum.
The Bloc Quebecois initially refused to give the PQ plan its blanket approval and then tried to paper over the differences with a statement that promised "full support for the proposal" in its title but actually only delivered the party's "enthusiasm" for participating in the debate in its text.
The Bloc's only Montreal-based MP Maria Mourani offered the public a token of sorts of that enthusiasm in a Radio-Canada interview on Tuesday. Not only does the MP for Ahuntsic oppose the proposal of a state-imposed secular dress code but she also feels that the initiative will make achieving Quebec sovereignty even more difficult.
There is little doubt that some of the protagonists in this debate will eventually pay a political price for their stance on the charter plan but it is too early to assume that it will not be its PQ masterminds.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.