10/30/2012 11:05 EDT | Updated 12/30/2012 05:12 EST

Clarity Act Bill: NDP Shouldn't Worry About Bloc's Stunt


Mischief might be the primary goal of the Bloc Québécois's attempt to abolish the Clarity Act, but it should not prove as difficult for the New Democrats to avoid the political minefield as some might believe.

André Bellavance, one of the Bloc's four MPs, tabled a private member's bill last week aimed at abolishing the Clarity Act, the law that requires that any future provincial referendum on independence have a clear question and a clear majority before the federal government enters into negotiations to split up the country.

The law has always been problematic in Quebec, where many feel this decision is one that should be left to Quebecers and Quebecers alone.

The Bloc's attempt to abolish the law is ostensibly a response to the Parti Québécois's recent electoral victory. In reality, it is meant to get the Bloc back into the news and to cause problems for the New Democrats.

Despite the PQ's recent success, the Bloc is still struggling in the province with the support of less than one in four voters in most polls, roughly where the party stood on election night in May 2011. With the combined support of the PQ and Québec Solidaire at anywhere between 10 and 20 points higher, there are many Quebecers who support sovereigntist parties provincially but the NDP federally.

The Bloc is hoping to force the New Democrats to decide on this issue and cause trouble for them among these nationalist voters. The Clarity Act is popular in the rest of Canada and a vote against it would signal (rightly or wrongly) that the New Democrats are not committed to national unity. But the law is not simply one that is opposed by sovereigntists in Quebec -- every provincial party in Quebec supports the idea of a clear majority representing 50 per cent plus one vote, and that the Clarity Act is an unwelcome intrusion into the province's politics.

It is the 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration that puts the NDP in a somewhat awkward position outside Quebec, as the party also supports the concept of 50 per cent plus one representing enough of a majority for the federal government to negotiate. But it does not take a lot of mental gymnastics to reconcile the Sherbrooke Declaration and the Clarity Act: mathematically, 50% plus one is a clear majority, and no voter in Quebec seriously believes a referendum question shouldn't be phrased clearly.

Though the Bloc might emphasize NDP support for the Clarity Act if the party votes against Bellavance's bill, it is unlikely to make much political hay. Those voters who see the abolition of the Clarity Act as an important priority are likely supporters of the Bloc Québécois already. Some commentators might highlight how the Sherbrooke Declaration and the Clarity Act can only be reconciled with some difficulty, but most Canadians likely recognize the debate is moot: politics will trump legality if Quebecers ever do vote "Yes" in a sovereignty referendum, something which looks unlikely to happen anytime soon.

The Conservatives and Liberals will undoubtedly take advantage of the opportunity to question the NDP's commitment to Canada as the vote approaches, but that will pay few dividends if the NDP votes with them and against the Bloc's bill. An increasingly apathetic electorate, at least when it comes to the national unity issue, will shrug and move on.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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