OTTAWA - Fewer than half of eligible Quebec voters could end up triggering the breakup of the country if the NDP's proposed rules for another independence referendum were to be adopted.
The party has drawn some heavy criticism for its proposed "unity bill," which stipulates that a bare majority of 50 per cent plus one vote would be sufficient to prompt negotiations on Quebec secession.
But the threshold is actually lower than that due to the NDP's deliberate decision not to take into account voter turnout.
Toronto MP Craig Scott, author of the NDP bill, said Wednesday that 50-plus-one would apply regardless of how many Quebecers actually turned out to cast ballots.
He doubted voter turnout on such a momentous question as Quebec's future would be a problem, noting that a record 94 per cent of Quebecers cast ballots in the 1995 referendum.
But even with 94 per cent turnout, a bare majority would translate into only 47 per cent of eligible voters determining the fate of the country.
The lower the turnout, the fewer Quebecers would be required to trigger divorce talks. For instance, a turnout of 85 per cent — as occurred during the first Quebec independence referendum in 1980 — would mean just 42 per cent of Quebecers could prompt secession negotiations.
The NDP's unity bill specifies that a bare majority Yes vote would be sufficient, provided that the referendum question is clear and that there were no "determinative irregularities" in the vote. It makes no mention of turnout.
The bill is intended to replace the Clarity Act, which stipulates that the federal government would only negotiate secession if a clear majority of Quebecers were to vote Yes on a clear question on independence.
The Clarity Act does not specify what would constitute a clear majority, leaving that to the House of Commons to decide after a referendum vote. It does say that MPs would have to take into account the size of the majority, voter turnout and any other relevant matters.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said the NDP's decision to drop any reference to turnout is irresponsible.
"With voter abstention, with people either deciding not to vote or indicating that they want to voice their disapproval of the government by not voting, you could end up with a situation where 25 per cent of the people would be deciding the future of the province of Quebec," Rae said in an interview.
"The NDP is still pandering to the view that there's an easy solution to this and it's all about a formula called 50 per cent plus one. You don't govern a country on formulas, you don't govern a country on theories and they should know better."
Scott said he'd be "open to an amendment" if he saw evidence that turnout could be problem. But he doubted it would be necessary.
"We honestly believe because of the kind of turnout in a momentous referendum on a huge issue, you're going to have enough people there that it's those who can and do bother to turn out whose votes should count," he said in an interview.
"It's as simple as that."
For that reason, Scott said the party considered — but ultimately rejected — making the threshold a bare majority of eligible voters.
Scott's bill is a private member's bill which has little chance of coming to a vote any time soon. But he said it was a "team effort" that has the unanimous support of the caucus, including NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
The bill is the latest iteration of the NDP's policy on national unity, building on the Sherbrooke Declaration, which helped the party sweep Quebec in the 2011 election, vaulting it into official Opposition status.
Rae said the bill opens "a terrible can of worms" in a bid to "paper over the cracks" in the NDP caucus.
He noted that the NDP voted in favour of the Chretien-era Clarity Act in 2000 but is now trying to mollify its 58 Quebec MPs, which make up more than half the NDP caucus.