OTTAWA – Jack Layton is attempting to clear the air about his party’s position on Quebec sovereignty, saying a simple majority vote would be enough for the NDP to recognize the will of Quebecers to secede.
“What constitutes a majority is 50 per cent plus one,” Layton said Thursday, a day after a stern rebuke from all parties in Quebec’s national assembly.
“It’s in our official policies. It’s been adopted in our Sherbrooke Declaration. That’s been crystal clear for five years, as official policy of our party.”
Party policy since 2006 has indeed been to recognize a 50-per-cent-plus-one referendum decision from Quebec. The declaration also says Quebec has a right to self-determination.
But earlier this week, Layton muddied the waters by appearing to agree with a 1998 Supreme Court decision on sovereignty.
That decision did not say a simple majority vote would be enough to secede. Rather it said the federal government would have to enter into negotiations with Quebec, but only if Quebecers clearly stated a will to secede.
Facing questions earlier this week, Layton repeatedly sidestepped the issue — provoking a backlash among Quebec’s provincial politicians.
“Layton’s trustworthiness has been hit hard,” said political scientist Jean-Francois Lisee of the University of Montreal in an email interview.
“His refusal to stand by the Sherbrooke Declaration for 24 hours has been extremely controversial, with fans and foes alike. He will recover, but he lost the lustre of the man you could count on. He is now the man who needs to be reminded that you count on him.”
Layton’s position on Quebec sovereignty has had little scrutiny in the past, but now that his party claims 59 of that province’s 75 federal seats, the NDP has become the voice of Quebec in Ottawa.
But even as he attempted to clarify, Layton continued to insist that his position is consistent with the Supreme Court ruling.
“The Supreme Court decision says you need a clear majority. And our Sherbrooke Declaration put a number to what a clear majority means: 50 per cent plus one. That’s been our policy for a long time, and it remains so.”
But critics say the NDP can’t have it both ways — to be in favour of the Supreme Court decision and also 50-per-cent-plus one. That’s because the Supreme Court called for a clear majority, they say, and 50-per-cent-plus-one is not clear.
“The New Democrat MPs from Quebec must be straight with Quebecers: either they respect the 50-per-cent-plus-one result from a referendum or, led by their party leader, they back the legal opinion of the Supreme Court,” said Bloc Quebecois MP Andre Bellevance.
Analysts have warned that the NDP would have trouble reconciling its position on Quebec with its approach to the rest of the country — although few predicted the trouble would come within a month of gaining official Opposition status.
Layton appeared alone at the Thursday press conference to announce his list of opposition critics. He also promised to end to heckling in the House of Commons, saying his new MPs will keep a quiet tone.
The shadow cabinet is a mix of 41 old and new faces. More than 40 per cent of the critics are women, reflecting the makeup of the 103-member NDP caucus.
Among the familiar names, Paul Dewar stays as foreign affairs critic, Joe Comartin is still watching the justice portfolio and Jack Harris keeps defence.
Some of the veterans change places. Thomas Mulcair is House leader, but hands over his duties as finance critic to newcomer Peggy Nash.
Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow, is transport and infrastructure critic, handing over immigration to Don Davies.
The new faces include Montreal’s Alexandre Boulerice facing off against Tony Clement at Treasury Board, as well as Nova Scotia’s Robert Chisholm at international trade, and British Columbia’s Jasbir Sandhu at public safety.
Layton said the May 2 election showed that people want to see Parliament focused on their priorities.
“This is the team that will deliver the goods,” he said.