12/07/2011 06:53 EST | Updated 02/06/2012 05:12 EST

Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois Would Lower Voting Age To 16


QUEBEC - Future referendums on Quebec independence could be triggered by popular demand under a series of democratic reform proposals put forward by the Parti Quebecois.

The provincial opposition party released a raft of measures Wednesday that included citizen-led referendums, the kind of petition-propelled plebiscites commonly seen in many U.S. states.

If approved by delegates at a party convention next month, the ideas including the referendum one could become part of the PQ platform.

The idea was first floated a while ago by a prominent MNA who suggested that if 15 per cent of Quebecers -- or 876,000 people -- signed a petition to hold a referendum on any topic, there could be one.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois did not specify a numeric threshold in a news conference Wednesday where she unveiled the idea as one of 13 possible reforms.

The ideas, not yet official policy, will be up for debate at a three-day convention that begins Jan. 27. But Marois told reporters that if she's unveiling the ideas now, it's not to see them gather dust.

"Never has a political party gone this far in its desire to propose real change," Marois said.

"The Parti Quebecois wants to change politics."

The party leadership has been dogged, since the last referendum in 1995, by an activist wing clamouring for a rematch. But the concerns of the party grassroots have generally taken a backseat to popular opinion -- which, in recent years, has been unfavourable to sovereignty and downright hostile to the idea of a referendum battle.

The PQ now appears to be toying with the idea of shifting the onus for holding future referendums away from its own leadership, and onto to the public at large.

If adopted as party policy, the PQ brass may finally have an easy answer to the question of when the next referendum will be: Whenever the public demands one. But the policy would also provide Marois' opponents with an equally easy attack line: Beware the permanent referendum campaign.

That's not the only major change suggested Wednesday.

Marois says she wants to give the vote to 16-year-olds if her party takes power. Traditionally young people have been among the sovereignty movement's strongest supporters. The party says it could even install ballot boxes at colleges and universities.

Other suggestions include fixed election dates; smaller party-donation limits; and a new, possibly two-round, voting system that exists in other countries but would be unique in Canada.

Marois says she would also create a representative body for Quebec's regions.

The proposals come from the party caucus, which has been expressing restlessness lately over Marois' leadership and which she has promised to pay more attention to.

Marois conceded that some of the party's ideas might be unconstitutional, like the one on the two-round voting system. And she says that will prove the PQ's central point.

It would "show the limits of the institution within which we must operate -- and that is Canadian federalism," she said.

A recent poll placed support for Quebec independence at around 33 per cent, its lowest level in decades.

Other polls have showed the PQ ahead of the governing Liberals, with both parties far behind the newly created Coalition For Quebec's Future. That new party is billing itself as a coalition of federalists and sovereigntists who want to put the national debate aside for awhile.

Premier Jean Charest is entering the fourth year of his mandate but does not have to hold an election until 2013.

Marois said her party's reform ideas would help "combat cynicism."