POLITICS
06/07/2011 12:57 EDT | Updated 08/07/2011 05:12 EDT

Pauline Marois, Parti Quebecois Leader, Under Attack As Jean-Martin Aussant Quits

CP

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- QUEBEC - The turmoil within the Parti Quebecois escalated into a clear attack on Pauline Marois' leadership Tuesday as a fourth member quit the caucus of the pro-independence party.

Jean-Martin Aussant, who represents a rural riding between Montreal and Quebec City, will leave the provincial Opposition party in order to sit as an Independent.

At a news conference, Aussant criticized the party leadership and its approach to achieving sovereignty.

Aussant's resignation comes on the heels of an even more crippling blow: the sudden departure Monday of three key front-benchers — Pierre Curzi, Lisette Lapointe and Louise Beaudoin.

Unlike those other departing members, who avoided questioning Marois' leadership, Aussant was brutal and blunt Tuesday.

"I'm here to work on sovereignty. And I don't think she's the one Quebecers will want to follow, at a very high rate, towards sovereignty," Aussant told a news conference.

"That's a very cruel statement. It's a hard one to say. It's probably a hard one to hear, from them, but that's what I think."

When asked whether she should resign he replied: "I'm not one for double-speak, so, yes."

Former premier Bernard Landry says it's like an earthquake rattling his party, and he says he fears it will become a tsunami.

Strangely enough, all these troubles are occurring while the party sits comfortably atop the polls.

The departing members have cited a variety of reasons for their disaffection, but the final straw was the party's gung-ho support for the Quebec City mayor's arena project.

Several members of the party grumbled on their way into an emergency caucus meeting Tuesday that they did not want to vote for a PQ-sponsored private member's bill on the arena.

The bill would protect a deal on arena naming rights between Quebec's city hall and the Quebecor media empire, inoculating the agreement against potential lawsuits.

Some legal experts have lambasted the legislation and opponents of the deal say they are entitled to a legal challenge because the deal circumvented municipal contracting norms. Pequistes who have left the party said they couldn't live with themselves, voting for such a legally questionable bill.

By end of day, Tuesday, the arena issue appeared to be moot — for a while.

The legislation has been sidelined, in its current form, because Charest announced he would not invoke his power of parliamentary closure to push it through the legislature. The debate over that bill, or a similar one, will be delayed until fall.

That prompted Quebecor to issue a statement saying that, while it would keep trying to bring an NHL team to Quebec City, the prospects were somewhat diminished: "The optimal conditions for ensuring the return of a National Hockey League team are no longer aligned and the extra delays could compromise the ultimate objective," said Quebecor head Pierre Karl Peladeau.

Some within the PQ say the arena kerfuffle is just a symptom of a much deeper dispute: how aggressively to push for Quebec independence.

Landry says the PQ has become too complacent and its members, who want a more strident pursuit of the party's raison d'etre, are now pushing back.

"There are other things (causing this)," Landry told Radio-Canada on Tuesday. He said the pursuit of power should take a back seat to principles — like the quest for independence.

Such a move would represent a strategic shift for a party which, for more than 15 years, has placed its emphasis on governing or winning government — and has simply expressed its hope to hold a vote on independence eventually, whenever the conditions are right.

"Rene Levesque did not found this party to govern the province of Quebec," Landry said Tuesday. "The obsession should be public service — not taking power. It's better to take power later — but to take it with dignity."

Ironically, Landry, like most recent PQ leaders, favoured the go-slow approach when he was sitting in the leader's chair. When he was premier, he was equally non-committal about a referendum.

The sudden revolt against Marois is, on the surface, all the more perplexing given that just weeks ago she received a 93 per cent approval rating from party members.

The departing members include: a former actor, Curzi, who is the party's most popular current politician; the wife, Lapointe, of the living figure most beloved by party members, ex-premier Jacques Parizeau; and an ex-diplomat, Beaudoin, who has served as the PQ's key envoy in gaining the support of foreign governments and nationalist movements for Quebec independence.

The PQ leader scoffed at those questioning her ability to achieve independence.

Marois noted that, barely a month ago, the party grassroots signed off on her leadership and her sovereignty strategy.

"Sovereignty is at the heart of our commitment and action," Marois said Tuesday. "And we will work together to make our country."

She made the remarks after a lengthy and apparently emotional caucus meeting. Some members either left the room teary-eyed or waved off reporters who tried approaching them.

But at least one of those expressing disenchantment on his way in said, after the meeting, that the party appeared headed toward a compromise on the arena spat.