As the federal Liberals gather for their summer caucus in Montebello, Que., interim leader Bob Rae sat down Tuesday with The Huffington Post Canada's Althia Raj to talk about the impending results of the Quebec election and the party's upcoming leadership race. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: If the Liberals lose, what does it mean for Mr. Charest?
A: We’ll see what happens when the election is over, but it is just one of these tougher parts about Quebec politics. Every time a Liberal government is defeated and is replaced by a separatist government, you then have the issue of national unity and business confidence in Quebec and Canada. All sorts of issues are raised and become part of the limelight and that is just something we have to deal with. I would urge Quebecers to vote for a federalist party and hope that that is exactly what happens.
Q: Would you say that the CAQ, Coalition Avenir Québec, is a federalist party?
A: It certainly has a number of federalists in it. It is a unique Quebec party where I think that there has been an agreement among all the members of the party that the sovereignty question, the issue of breaking up the country, will be put off for a period of time — they won’t focus on those issues. And there are a number of people who have been active in the federal Liberal party who are either candidates or actively involved in the campaign. Certainly, I know Mr. Charest well and we’ve worked closely together, on a couple of referenda and other issues, so I’m a big, big supporter of Mr. Charest.
Q: If the Liberals are defeated would you see it as a problem with the Liberal brand?
A: No. I think again, it is part of a turn of events, no provincial government gets elected every time and no political party gets elected every time, so I wouldn’t read that much into it.
Q: If the PQ forms government in Quebec, do you think another referendum is a certainty?
A: I think it will depend on a number of factors. First of all, I think Mme. Marois is going to encounter a very powerful opposition to the idea of another referendum from a significant number of Quebecers. I think it would be a foolish person who would ignore that opinion. I am one of those people who think that if the people of Quebec give the PQ a government, a number of people inside that party will see it as this is what they were elected to do, this is their objective, this is what they are going to figure out a way to do. I think it would be tragic for the country and for Quebec to put itself through another referendum. It would make absolutely no sense to me.
Q: Do you think Prime Minister Stephen Harper should negotiate with Mme Marois?
A: I don’t think that Mr. Harper should give away the store. I don’t think he has the authority or the mandate to do that from the people of Canada. I think as a matter of principle the prime minister needs to talk to every province about the governance of the country, but it is clear in my mind that Mme. Marois has a very different set of objectives and Mr. Harper has no mandate to abandon federal authority, none whatsoever.
Q: And if he offers every other province the right to regulate employment insurance for example?
A: He has no mandate to do it for one province over another province. He has no mandate to break up our social safety net. That’s what I am saying, he has no mandate to break up federal authority. I think the social safety net is weak enough in this country without Mr. Harper breaking it up even more.
Q: Do you think Canadians care about separation the way they used to?
A: I think people are human and I think it is a human emotion to say, ‘I have less patience for this than I did at some other time.’ But the reality is this is not something that you can ever afford to be impatient about. The national government needs to have a national strategy. There has to be national leadership. If we are in the middle of a very challenging situation there has to be a way for the prime minister to show leadership and for the rest of us to say, what can we do to help? How can we be constructive, helpful to get to where we need to get to? But it is not something where we can afford to be the least bit indifferent about as a country.
The problem is when you are dealing with someone like Mme Marois, she makes it very clear that her objective is the breakup of the country, and it is not about control over EI or culture. That is not the objective at all, those are just points along a map which for her has just one destination. There is no deal that will satisfy Mme Marois. Or the PQ. None.
Q: Do you think Prime Minister Harper is capable of fighting Mme Marois?
A: He has some challenges, he doesn’t have the greatest team together but that is why he does have to show a leadership to talk to other parties and leaders and candidates and see how to fashion a response, because we can't afford to let this thing drift or pretend it is not a problem.
Q: If Marois is elected premier Tuesday evening, how does that change the dynamics of the Liberal leadership race?
A: I think what it does is it will bring back into focus once again the issue of unity and the issue of leadership and how to deal with the unity issue.
Q: Do you think it would benefit candidates who are from Quebec?
A: Not necessarily. Some of our more effective prime ministers on dealing with the unity file, like Mr. Pearson for example, were from Ontario and outside of Quebec, so I don’t see that as the litmus test. I do think though that we will have candidates from across the country who are running and people’s ability to deal with that question effectively will be a matter of importance.
Q: We’re already getting indications NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair will take the opportunity [of a PQ win] to raise the federalist flag in Quebec. Where does that leave you? How much leeway do you have to react?
A: I have been active in constitutional and national politics since the 1970s, so I obviously come at it with a lot of experience. I’m not quite sure where Mr. Mulcair will be adding so much to the debate.
I haven’t heard hide nor hair of him or any of his colleagues in terms of the debate going on in Quebec. From their opposition to the Clarity Act to a number of other things, I think that the position of the NDP will frankly be more vulnerable if there were to [be] a PQ victory.
Q: Mr. Mulcair has already said he plans to spend the next two years defining his party and the Conservatives. Will the Liberals be squeezed out in an increasingly polarized debate?
A: The last thing this country needs is to be forced into making a choice between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. I have no doubt that Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair will be spending a lot of time writing cartoons of each other and doing everything they can to try to destroy each other’s credibility. Most Canadians feel very strongly that they want to see solutions to problems, that they want to see practical approaches to problems, they don't want to be forced to be making ideological choices.
Q: How does the Liberal Party intend to deal with Liberal MPs who decide to join the leadership race? Will they lose their critic portfolios?
A: I intend to discuss with caucus how people feel about that. My own view is that it is bit exaggerated to say that people can’t play or shouldn’t play a role in the House of Commons because they are running for leadership. My own view is sometimes we perhaps have erred a little bit too much on one side or the other side, saying you have to take a leave, you have to leave your critic portfolio.
There are some positions in the House where you obviously make it more difficult for people to run for candidate because you have to be in the House but my inclination is not to be as draconian as some. I am much more relaxed about that. I also think we are a smaller caucus, we need all hands on deck, we want to have everybody participating and engaging in the campaign.
Q: Will you be encouraging MPs to declare their leadership intentions sooner rather than later?
A: Nope, I'll be encouraging people in the party who are MPs and who are not MPs, I'll be encouraging a number of different people to think about running ... I think we need a strong race and it will be healthy for the party to have a number of good candidates so I'm hoping that is what will happen.
Q: Any regrets you bowed out of the leadership race?
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Beyond the overall result -- and the tally of seats in the national assembly that had been led by the Liberals -- there are several issues to watch in tonight's result. <em>With files from CBC</em>
Strength Of PQ Vote
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/09/04/quebec-election-polls-2012_n_1854069.html" target="_hplink">The polls have been favouring Marois's aspiring Parti Québécois</a>, suggesting the sovereigntist party is on track to form a minority government. There's an outside chance it could be a majority, something Martin says would give the party "a great deal more stability and credibility in its actions in government." But that hardly means there will be instant referendum on Quebec sovereignty. "Then the question will turn to whether [the Parti Québécois] is in a good position to build up support for sovereignty from this very, one might say tenuous, base," Martin said. And, Martin suggests, that won't be easy. "The majority of Quebecers have some sympathy for the notion," he said, "but for the moment it's only a minority that have the actual desire to go through the whole process of getting to sovereignty. You know the usual joke: everyone wants to go to paradise, nobody wants to die." Getting to sovereignty would involve a referendum campaign, something that can be divisive and acrimonious. "It also forces people internally to make choices that they're not necessarily comfortable with," Martin said.
Fate Of The Liberal Party
If support for Charest's beleaguered Liberals crumbles, as some polls have suggested is likely, it will be a stunning -- and historic -- demise for the party. "It's been the party in the centre of power in Quebec for the last century, and it was the one stable party and other parties sort of gravitated around it," Martin said. "At this point it looks possible for the party to actually fall apart and that's something that is of great consequence for the future of Quebec politics." While electoral defeat in itself is hardly insurmountable, the Liberals have a few other storm clouds looming, including the imminent resumption of a provincial inquiry probing allegations of corruption in the construction industry. Revelations trickling in from the Charbonneau commission might implicate party members and turn out to be even more damaging to the party's future, Martin says. Add the potential for a leadership crisis that could follow if Charest loses his Sherbrooke seat, and Martin sees a difficult time ahead for the party. "The Liberals will be more or less forced to support the Parti Québécois because they can't afford to get into an election in the short run," he said. "They will be very weak. They will be in the situation in which if they force an election, they might actually disappear."
Strength Of CAQ Vote
Legault, a former Parti Québecois cabinet minister who has walked a very fine line on the sovereignty issue since the election was called, spent the final days of the campaign suggesting that the election had evolved into a two-way race between his upstart CAQ and the Parti Québecois. Martin says the party has a "fairly good chance" of becoming the Official Opposition, something that "changes the dynamic," and reduces the Liberal role. Martin sees the CAQ in a different light than the Action democratique du Quebec, which in 2007 found itself as the Official Opposition, but was later routed by voters and has since seen its remnants absorbed into the CAQ. The CAQ is "essentially the same type of party but they do have a team that is in my view more prepared for at least for the role of official opposition than were the ADQ," says Martin. "The ADQ was somehow caught by surprise and they had a fairly weak delegation at the national assembly whereas the CAQ in my view is better staffed."
Where The Francophone Vote Goes
Much is made of the francophone vote in Quebec politics, and no wonder -- it represents 82 per cent of the population. And this time round, there's been an obvious trend. "For francophone voters, this election has clearly become a fight between Pauline Marois and François Legault," CBC's Bernard St-Laurent said. By the fourth week of the campaign, a CROP poll was showing that francophone support for the Coalition Avenir Québec had grown at 30 per cent, compared with 36 per cent for the PQ. "This means in the second half of the campaign, the CAQ has gained four points among francophone voters and the PQ has lost three," St-Laurent said. "CROP pollster Youri Rivest says CAQ support has now reached the zone where it can win a substantial number of ridings," St-Laurent noted. Martin cautions against looking at the francophone vote as a homogeneous block. "You've got at least six or seven regions that show different electoral dynamics all at once, and that includes a great deal of variety across regions," he said, adding what happens in the 450 region around Montreal will be of great importance. "That's where there's been the most demographic change," Martin said. "That region is actually where the competition between the Parti Québecois and the CAQ is the strongest and that's where we're likely to see, if there's a strong and uniform shift in that region, that will definitely be determinant for the winning party or the government, that's for sure."
Charest's Fate In His Riding
The polls haven't been favouring Charest at home in Sherbrooke. But the veteran Liberal leader has shown he can survive adversity. He and Elsie Wayne were the last federal Conservatives standing in 1993 when the party went down to its historic defeat. But tonight could be different. Martin, who grew up in Sherbrooke a couple of blocks from Charest, considers him an "extraordinarily gifted politician." "But he's never been wildly popular in Sherbrooke. It's always been a bit of a struggle for him to win by a convincing margin in his own riding, and if the party collapses at the provincial level, it's fairly likely it will also be difficult for him in Sherbrooke and probably facilitate the decision-making process on his part as to what to do in the future." Martin says Charest's campaign actions have shown he knows the struggle he faces in his own riding. "He has been quite aware of the situation because he spent almost twice as much time himself in Sherbrooke in this campaign than in any other campaign," Martin said. "I think he's well aware that he's got ... a steep hill to climb, but people in Sherbrooke are used to climbing steep hills, so you never know."
Here's a look at five ways the Quebec election should be of interest to the rest of Canada. <em>With files from CBC</em>
The Sovereignty Question
"Quebecers don't want a referendum on sovereignty," says CBC's Bernard St-Laurent. "That doesn't mean they would vote against secession. But they would rather not have to deal with the issue in the first place." Still, if the PQ gains power and the sovereignty queston gets pushed to the fore, there is the potential for that discussion to wake up the debate outside Quebec. Times have changed since Canadians outside the province packed buses bound for Montreal, determined to convince Quebecers to vote Non in the 1995 referendum. "There is little stomach anymore among the Canadian population outside this province to placate Quebec nationalists with further jurisdictional concessions and fiscal payoffs," the Montreal Gazette noted in an editorial on Aug. 27. That lack of stomach could bring a showdown on quicker than expected, and perhaps make it difficult on those who will want to play for time to let emotions cool and to keep the country together. The economy question
The Economy Question
Quebec's fiscal picture is pretty gloomy. It is weighed down by $184 billion in debt, crumbling infrastructure and little sense that the province's fiscal future will get much better soon. The Conference Board of Canada projects growth of just 1.4 per for 2012, "one of the weakest performances in the country and much weaker than Ontario's." The board says the Quebec economy is feeling the burden of weakening global economic growth and the heavier personal fiscal burden on Quebecers. Whoever ends up leading the province after Sept. 4 will have to make some hard decisions. All the parties propose a balanced budget by 2013-14 but they also have their individual billion-dollar funds for everything from natural resources to finding ways to avert foreign takeovers. How this would all work isn't entirely clear. But a minority government or a radical change in direction could end up affecting the national economy. And some of the protectionist and anti-takeover plans being proposed could also jeopardize the Harper government's free-trade plans with Europe and the Pacific Rim.
The Tuition Question
For months this spring, Quebec students flooded the streets, banged pots and pans and found support from labour unions in their fight against the tuition hikes proposed by Charest's government. They were the reason, Charest said, that he called the election when he did, ostensibly before classes were set to resume. "In the last few months we've heard a lot from a number of student leaders. We've heard from people in the street. We've heard from those who have been hitting away at pots and pans. Now is the time for the silent majority." Outside Quebec, the root cause of the protest may ring a little hollow -- after all, even if the Liberals' proposed increases came to pass, students would still be paying far less than the national average for post-secondary tuition. The Liberals are looking for an 80 per cent increase, which would come in increments of $254 a year for seven years. The CAQ is proposing an increase of $200 per year over five years. The PQ platform proposes eliminating the Liberal increase, but Marois has since said modest fee increases would be indexed to the cost of living. The question remains, however: just who is going to resolve the tuition crisis, and how? If Quebec students ultimately get even some of what they want, to what extent would the result embolden students elsewhere in Canada, many of whom are reported to be drowning in student debt?
The Identity Question
The PQ platform includes plans for a formalized Quebec citizenship, which might bring it into conflict with Canadian citizenship, as well as a secular charter that would ban civil servants from wearing "overt" religious symbols such as the hijab or a yarmulke. (A crucifix would be fine provided it's not too showy as it is considered part of Quebec's cultural heritage.) "Add those commitments to the promise to prevent francophones and allophones from attending English CEGEPS, and [the PQ's] proposal to force businesses with more than 11 employees to function in French, and no one will doubt who the PQ is courting," says the CBC's St-Laurent. But apart from the legalistic and Charter of Rights challenges that some of these proposals would unleash, they could also set a national precedent and spark a debate over multiculturalism and minority accommodation across the country that few want.
The Language Question
The PQ's proposed new and more restrictive Charter of the French Language could be a risky move, suggests St-Laurent. But it is not the only party that has plunged into the murky language waters. Charest has said he wants the French-language rules in Bill 101 to apply to federal institutions to help "promote and protect the French language and culture." But, he hastened to add, he wouldn't actually amend the law. The CAQ's Legault has said he wouldn't strengthen Bill 101 but because of how much English is spoken in business in Montreal, he would ensure it's fully enforced. The focus on language inevitably raises the question of just how comfortable those whose first language is not French would continue to feel in a province where its protection grows. Would there be another Anglo or allophone exodus, as there was in the 1970s when the PQ first came to power? It seems unlikely but media reports in Montreal suggest the real estate market may be feeling the effects of election apprehension, with people in English-speaking areas holding off on offers for a new house until after Sept. 4. Minority language rights have always been a delicate balancing act at government, business and school board levels right across the country. If Quebec does move to strengthen its language laws, that would almost certainly have a ripple effect elsewhere.