Robert Libman: As Legault's slide continues, what's his next move?

The premier might be tempted to rip a page out of the Parti Québécois referendum playbook. That could prove to be a mistake.

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Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon certainly seems to have Premier François Legault and his Coalition Avenir Québec on the ropes. Another Léger poll, this week, shows the PQ in command at 34 per cent support, with the governing CAQ sliding another three points to 22 per cent. Québec solidaire, the Liberals and Conservatives follow with 18, 14 and 10 per cent, respectively.

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When a boxer is in trouble, they flail wildly at great risk, hoping to land a lucky knockout punch. Or they can patiently and defensively hold their ground, jabbing at their opponent’s weaknesses until they eventually falter. As devastating as are the polls, Legault isn’t even halfway into his four-year mandate so there are many rounds before the bell.

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The primary reason for the PQ’s current success is that it’s not the CAQ and St-Pierre Plamondon is not Legault. Though PSPP is likable as a salesman, what he is trying to peddle is tired old merchandise. Support for the party’s raison d’être — separating from Canada — hasn’t budged beyond 35 per cent in decades. And he will eventually have to defend the pretension that the magic wand of Quebec independence would solve all financial and budgetary concerns or complex immigration issues.

St-Pierre Plamondon has been on the offensive after Legault met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week on Quebec’s challenges in dealing with the influx of 528,000 temporary immigrants, a shared jurisdiction. The day before the meeting, PSPP set up Legault in the National Assembly to say he would be requesting full powers over immigration. But Trudeau, who often hedges and has been weak-kneed with Legault in the past, was surprisingly categoric and did not cave to Quebec’s full demands. He promised to work with the province toward viable solutions, which the PQ quickly characterized as “perpetual humiliation”. To Legault’s credit, instead of firing back at Ottawa, he expressed hope that constructive bilateral solutions could be found, with another meeting planned for June 30.

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Legault has accused St-Pierre Plamondon of preferring to see Quebec fail in procuring benefits from Ottawa to suit his own political purposes. Continued collaboration with Ottawa on immigration, and making tangible gains for Quebec, is critical for Legault in slowing PQ momentum and making him look like the adult in the room rather than the belligerent child.

What may be of concern, however, was a subtle hint dropped by Legault in question period this week. St-Pierre Plamondon was goading him into joining a multi-party common front against Ottawa to leverage full immigration powers or hold a referendum on the issue. Legault didn’t take the bait, repeating he was “working on other options” that “neither included a referendum on Quebec sovereignty nor the repatriation of powers” — but then emphasizing “for the moment”.

Is Legault hinting at the possibility — if he doesn’t get what he wants on June 30 — of an eventual referendum on sovereignty or immigration to force Ottawa’s hand?

It’s reminiscent of what the Robert Bourassa Liberals tried in 1991 with Bill 150, an act calling for a referendum on sovereignty unless Canada came through with an acceptable offer of a new constitutional partnership. The feds delivered with the Charlottetown Accord but that created divisions in the country and was subsequently defeated in a referendum in 1992. This fuelled the re-election of the PQ two years later, setting up the 1995 referendum on sovereignty that the Yes side lost by a whisker.

If Legault responds to the polls and flails in desperation to appropriate the PQ’s referendum strategy, I suspect he would strengthen the PQ’s hand significantly and get knocked out for good. But if he plays the long game, collaborating to make the federal system work for Quebec, he forces the PQ on its heels, to finally play defence and inevitably start faltering.

Robert Libman is an architect and planning consultant who has served as Equality Party leader and MNA, mayor of Côte-St-Luc and a member of the Montreal executive committee. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2015 federal election. X @robertlibman

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