Expect Marois to play up diversions

Chantal Hebert
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In a more rational world Pauline Marois would get the Parti Québécois campaign back on track by formally ruling out a referendum on Quebec's political future over the majority mandate that she is seeking on April 7.

All the available evidence suggests that a sovereigntist referendum victory is not at hand in the short or mid-term. If the first half of the election campaign has shown anything, it is a visceral lack of popular appetite for revisiting the issue of the province's political future any time soon.

At mid-campaign the prospect of a third referendum has emerged as the biggest roadblock to Marois' re-election next month, especially at the head of a majority government.

According to a CROP poll published earlier this week, two-thirds of voters do not believe that a majority PQ government would pass on the opportunity to hold a referendum over its mandate.

Just as many oppose the idea and 60 per cent say that they would vote no to sovereignty if the government insisted on asking again.

Scores of them are currently poised to vote accordingly next month.

On the heels of the recruitment by the PQ of media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau there has been a steady rise in Liberal support. Two polls - one by CROP and the other by Leger Marketing - have reported the same trend.

The anecdotal evidence is that voters are not willing to treat the referendum matter as a side issue. And why would they when it involves their political future?

PQ strategists apparently believed that the advent of a star candidate with strong business credentials such as PKP - as the Quebecor owner is familiarly called in Quebec - would assuage fears of sovereignty. But his arrival on the scene actually drove up fears of a referendum.

Short of a solid assurance that the next mandate will not be spent trying to rekindle the sovereigntist flame those fears will not be easily put to rest between now and April 7.

But in the real world Marois does not have the luxury of offering the kind of definitive statement that could instantly recast the election as something other than a plebiscite on a third referendum.

Her support is strongest among the third of voters who like the idea. And her predicament is compounded by the fact that so many sovereigntists feel that the clock is running out on their chance to achieve their goal of an independent Quebec within their lifetimes.

One only needs to glance at the evening television news to see that PQ campaign rallies are largely attended by aging baby boomers.

In the lead-up to the 1980 and 1995 referendums, younger Quebecers made up the leading pro-sovereignty cohort.

But as Université de Montréal analyst Claire Durand pointed out in an op-ed piece published on Wednesday in La Presse, that is no longer the case. As a result, support for the sovereignty option is failing to thrive.

Then there is the PKP factor. The PQ's progressive wing could not countenance the prospect that a business tycoon with a labour relations record such as Péladeau's will be a driving force in the next government unless its members believed that his presence will turn the pipe dream of a winning referendum into a reality.

And so the word is that Marois will seek salvation in a diversion.

Over the remaining two weeks of the campaign, the PQ is expected to go harder on its plan for a secularism charter. The project is as polarizing as the notion of a referendum but in a positive sense for the sovereigntist party.

It remains to be seen whether enough voters will decide that their support for the charter outweighs their opposition to another referendum to reverse the momentum of the campaign in the PQ's favour.

According to CROP, the charter is a priority for only a fraction of its supporters. And fatigue with that debate is even more prevalent among Quebecers than fatigue with the referendum issue. Still, from the PQ's electoral perspective, a tired horse is better than a lame horse.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column is distributed by Torstar Syndication Services.

Organizations: PQ, Leger Marketing, Quebecor Université de Montréal La Presse Torstar Syndication Services

Geographic location: Quebec

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