ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Liberal mischief-makers set a political cat loose among the NDP pigeons Thursday, forcing opposition New Democrats to defend their position that a bare majority Yes vote would be enough to trigger talks on Quebec leaving Canada.
NDP MPs gathered for the final day of their caucus retreat in St. John's found themselves facing questions about a a media report that said the Liberals were contemplating a motion asking Parliament to reaffirm its support for the Clarity Act.
The act stipulates that the federal government would require a clear majority to vote in support of a clear referendum question on Quebec independence before it would consider negotiating the terms of a divorce.
The NDP supported the Clarity Act when it was introduced in 1999 by the Liberal government of Jean Chretien, in response to the country's near-death experience in the 1995 Quebec referendum.
However, the NDP adopted its own policy on Quebec in 2005 — the Sherbrooke declaration — which Liberals believe is inconsistent with the act. It says, among other things, that the NDP would regard a vote of 50 per cent plus one to be sufficiently clear to trigger secession talks.
Few federal politicians believe there'll be another referendum on Quebec's future any time soon, given that the Parti Quebecois received such a weak mandate in Tuesday's provincial election. A Liberal motion, if any, would do little beyond sow dissension in NDP ranks and raise doubts among Canadians outside Quebec about the NDP's commitment to national unity.
One Liberal MP, who spoke anonymously, confirmed some Liberals want to flush NDP leader Tom Mulcair "out of the bushes or make him browbeat his own caucus into submission" on the issue.
Other Liberals fear the move could stoke near-dormant separatist fires and backfire on the party, which likes to portray themselves as the party of national unity.
Interim Liberal leader Bob Rae said seeking parliamentary reaffirmation of support for the Clarity Act is "a matter for consideration" but it was not discussed during the party's three-day caucus retreat in Montebello, Que.
Nevertheless, he took the opportunity to jab at the NDP's alleged confusion on the subject.
"I don't know what the position of the NDP currently is on that," Rae told reporters at the conclusion of the caucus retreat.
"The Sherbrooke declaration that they've talked about clearly doesn' speak to it, seems to go against it. There are some current members of the NDP in the House who voted in favour of the Clarity Act and I don't know where Mr. Mulcair and others stand.
"But I know where we stand very clearly."
Liberal MP Denis Coderre said he saw no need to reopen the issue.
"It's a minority government in Quebec and more than 58 per cent of the elected don't belong to a sovereigntist wing, so why would we re-embark on referendums and in constitutional crises that don't exist?"
Whether or not the Liberals pursue the idea, mere speculation about such a motion had New Democrats scrambling Thursday during the final hours of their own three-day caucus retreat.
Aides hustled MPs away from reporters' microphones as they were peppered with questions about the NDP's controversial policy on Quebec.
"It's a solid piece of work and we stand by it," deputy leader Libby Davies said of the Sherbrooke declaration.
New Democrats insisted their position is consistent with democratic principles and with the Clarity Act, which does not specify what would constitute a clear majority.
Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus noted that 50 plus one is considered "a staggering endorsement of a member of Parliament."
"So, if it's good enough for me to be elected (with) 50 plus one and be considered to win a great majority ... I'm saying what's very important here is you have to treat the democratic will of the people with respect," he said.
Angus added that the NDP swept Quebec in the 2011 election precisely because the Sherbrooke declaration showed the party is willing to trust and respect Quebecers.
However, the NDP requires a two-thirds vote to change its party constitution and MPs were hard-pressed to explain why a lesser standard should apply to the break-up of the country.
"Hey, listen, I'm just a little guy from northern Ontario," said Thunder Bay MP John Rafferty. "You need to talk to the big guys about that sort of thing."
Rafferty said he personally believes 50 plus one is sufficient but acknowledged he doesn't know whether his constituents would agree.
"If it comes to that — which I don't believe it will in this current Quebec government situation — but if it does come to that, I'll certainly find out what everyone in my riding thinks about that. I think it is an important issue."
Montreal MP Alexandre Boulerice, who has acknowledged voting Yes in the 1995 referendum, deemed the possible Liberal manoeuvre irrelevant.
"We are talking about the future, the Liberals are living in the past," he said dismissively.
Industry Minister Christian Paradis, a Conservative MP who represents a Quebec riding, denounced both parties for using sovereignty as a political football.
"It's deplorable and terribly irresponsible to see the two opposition parties playing petty politics with such an important issue," Paradis said in a statement.
"Quebecers were clear: they don't want to revisit old constitutional squabbles and we should all respect their will. Rather, they want us to address the real issues facing their families, such as the economy and job creation."
Mulcair did not take questions from reporters Thursday but a day earlier affirmed he is not only at ease with the NDP's Sherbrooke declaration but proud of it.
While the Clarity Act doesn't spell out what would constitute a clear majority, the Liberal government of the day was clear that the intention was to require something more than 50 plus one.
Montreal MP Stephane Dion, who helped draft the act as Chretien's intergovernmental affairs minister, has challenged New Democrats to explain what would constitute an unclear majority if they think a bare 50 plus one is clear.
The act was based heavily on the results of a reference to the Supreme Court of Canada on the legality of unilateral secession by a province.
The justices repeatedly referred to the need for a "clear majority vote on a clear question" before the rest of the country would be obligated to negotiate a constitutional amendment to facilitate a province's departure from the federation.
While they didn't specify what would constitute a clear majority, the justices did indicate repeatedly that they had something more than a simple majority in mind.
"The referendum result, if it is to be taken as an expression of the democratic will, must be free of ambiguity both in terms of the question asked and in terms of the support it achieves," they said at one point.
At another point, they said: "Canadians have never accepted that ours is a system of simple majority rule."
— With files from Bruce Cheadle in Montebello, Que.
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