Jack Layton will have his hands full during the next four and a half years—the term of the current Tory majority government—trying to keep his New Democratic Party from fractioning along regional lines. We’ve seen such fractures occur before when there has been a strong Quebec nationalist element in an otherwise non-Quebec federalist party.
Political parties can be like the egg in the famous Humpty Dumpty riddle/nursery rhyme in that, once broken, no power can put them together again.
I’m reminded of the Brian Mulroney Tories, which stunned the Trudeau/Turner Liberals, sweeping them aside in 1984 and taking power with 211 seats in the House of Commons. Little did we fully understand at the time, that the seeds of the Bloc Québécois were sewn within the coalition that made that landslide victory possible.
The Bloc Québécois emerged from a fracture in the Progressive Conservative caucus (along with two Liberals) in 1990, and, in the 1993 federal election, the Bloc won 54 seats (out of 75) in Quebec, sweeping nearly all of the francophone ridings there.
Going back thirty years before that fateful election, we can point to the split of the Quebec wing from the Social Credit Party of Canada, Ralliement des créditistes, from the national organization. The two factions did re-unite in October 1971, but, by that time, it was too late for their survival as anything more than a nationalist, Quebec-only party—a somewhat softer version of the Bloc Québécois.
In the 2011 federal election, the NDP won a record 103 seats in a historic breakthrough in Quebec, winning 59 of 75 seats, many of which were former seats of the Bloc Québécois, which lost all but four of its 47 seats. So we can assume that the NDP owes much of its Quebec support to Quebec nationalists, as did Brian Mulroney’s Tories in 1993 and the Social Credit Party thirty years before that.
Consequently, it seems reasonable to question whether Jack Layton will be any more successful in reconciling conflicting policy objectives between his Quebec faction and that from the rest of Canada.
For weeks now, he’s been pandering to Quebec nationalists. He speaks of “creating winning conditions” for Quebec in Canada, which sounds too much like the separatist slogan used to whip up support for Quebec independence. He says also that he favours giving Quebec more seats in the House of Commons than its population warrants, and he supports a greater presence for French in Quebec’s federally regulated workplaces.
Moreover, Layton supports the proposition that Quebecers can break up the country by voting “50 per cent plus one” to separate from Canada. He says it’s a “long-standing principle in democratic institutions,” which was enshrined on in the NDP’s “Sherbrooke Declaration.” This, of course, pits Layton and his party against the Supreme Court of Canada and the federal Clarity Act.
This may all be music to the ears of many Quebec voters, but how is it likely to play in the rest of Canada, where the NDP needs to draw most of its support if it hopes to govern one day?
Frankly, I don’t believe it’ll play well at all. And, if Layton wants to retain his credibility as leader of the Official Opposition, he’d better reassure non-Quebec voters among his non-traditional base that he stands with the high court and the law of our land. Otherwise, he can kiss a majority victory for his party goodbye—at least anytime during his lifetime.
And if he does give any such reassurance to the rest of Canada, Quebec nationalists will drop him and his party, and they’ll have a great fall just as Humpty Dumpty did.