To be crippled by bitter internal disputes over compro- mises for power is the curse of every ”œparty of principle.” That is the self-description of those parties organized around a cause, a ”œconviction” against which all other issues and strategies are tested. They share a fatal flaw. There is a line that runs from the split between Marx and the great German Social Democrat Friedrich Eberts over the par- liamentary road to power, to the split between Mussolini and his erstwhile socialist allies over the use of violence to gain power, to the Waffle and the New Democratic Party’s civil war over Canadian nationalism, to the potential rupture in the Parti Québécois over power versus sovereignty.

The verdict of history is brutal, and unanimous, for those who believe that any ”œmovement” party can avoid the painful choice between compromises for power and internecine bloodletting.

They’re wrong.

Often, as in the case of the NDP and the PQ, they lose both ways. The parties are racked by cycles of internal rebel- lion at their governments’ ”œfall from virtue,” followed by new leaders promising ”œrectification” of past errors, followed by failure and more feuding. Canadian Conservatives, already twitchy at thin ideological gruel being served by their government, would do well to study the pattern.

Those who champion the popular appeal of the power of principle in a politics of righteousness are deluded and delude their followers. Yes, voters can be seduced into vot- ing for a Jimmy Carter or a Preston Manning or a George Bush in revolt over corrupt or incompetent or simply embarrassing incumbents. The experience of power inevitably ends in angry disillusion for all concerned.

It is, rather, ”œthe principle of power,” its appropriate and effective use in governing, that determines the success or fail- ure of politicians. It requires reflecting, where possible, the values and goals of your activists, tacking in other directions when forced, building and leading coalitions of support for new solutions that are the mark of great governments and successful parties ”” not a laser-true alignment with the path of virtue demanded by any movement or partisan creed.

The grumpy ex-Reformers, the political fossils adorning the back pages of the National Post and the hot-blooded young blogging zealots already chewing the curtains and plotting rebellion would do well to remember the outcome of their last bout of self-indulgence over an ”œimpure” Conservative gov- ernment ”” a near-death experience and more than a decade in opposition.

Stephen Harper, the former angry young zealot, seems to have absorbed the First Commandment of Canadian Liberalism ”” firm flexibility is the key to successful government ”” at the very moment when Stéphane Dion is flaunting an improbable and ill-fitting new suit called conviction politics. The neo-pacifist, anti-Zionist, Taliban-sensitive politics of the federal New Democrats is the politics driven by convention resolutions rather than leadership, and has no doubt earned the reproachful glare from above of J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas and David Lewis combined. Western NDP premiers grimace and change the sub- ject when asked about the Jack Layton approach to international policy lead- ership. As Bob Rae discovered, there are many New Democrats ”” especially in Ontario ”” who believe that power is inimical to the movement, who do their best to sabotage any NDP government or the prospect of one.

For parties of the tribe, or language rights, or the terroir, the constraints of power are more cruel, as they neces- sarily involve compromising the ambi- tions of their community, playing a junior partner role in a larger or more dominant culture or nation. But parties of this type ”” from Belgium to Bali, from Barcelona to Beirut ”” have mas- tered it for generations. A history of community exclusion, discrimination and even violent suppression have often been the more painful alternatives.

Parties of principle, as they are known or deem themselves, especially of the democratic left or their causes, are often bad at coalition building. Their recruitment ethos requires an enemy, and a self-definition of operat- ing at a higher, more honourable level of politics. Making common cause with the enemy undermines the brand. Minority government manage- ment challenges this moral preten- sion. It will be interesting to see if the PQ can learn this new dance.

For the party has arrived at a familiar hard fork in the political road yet again: to seek to govern or to be an inevitably declining party of sover- eignist purity. Pauline Marois, like René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard before her, understands which side of this divide she must stand on. With some courage she has thrown down her glove. Government over referen- dum, electoral success before sover- eignty, is what she has warned her militants she will insist on. Indeed as its presumed leader she is imposing these conditions on a party used to imposing conditions on its leader.

Like the two most popular PQ leaders before her, however, Marois will now need to decide how to enforce this strategic discipline. As the founding father of the movement, Lévesque could successfully fight the few chal- lenges from his dissidents on the ques- tion of principle over power. Bouchard adopted a strategy of ”œwinning condi- tions” as a prerequisite to any referen- dum. But his winning conditions did not obtain in the 1998 Quebec elec- tion, when he won a majority of seats but lost a plurality of votes, and thus was denied the first winning condition ”” legitimacy. Though he resigned in disgust with the party in 2001, he was essentially forced out by unhappy mil- itants, as was every other PQ leader with the exception of Jacques Parizeau, who resigned in disgrace on the mor- row of his ”œmoney and the ethnic vote” comments on referendum night in 1995. The hapless André Boisclair is only the latest proof that this party devours its leaders.

As a former minister in the toughest portfolios in government ”” finance, treasury board, education and health ”” Marois under- stands well the gap between reality and PQ party resolu- tions. Like every PQ minister, she has endured the hun- dreds of hours of denunciation and adolescent rhetoric of PQ party meetings, whacking their government for its many small trahisons, a pained smile carefully frozen in place. As the next leader, her challenge is how much truth to speak to the powerful in the party ranks, about the need for funda- mental change.

In Canadian politics, most leaders’ power ebbs from the day of their convention victory to the moment they secure a majority government mandate. The cycle of decline begins again at mid-term for most. While it’s healthy for democracy that few leaders climb from peak to higher peak of unchallenged authority, it does mean that they are best fighting their tough- est battles –especially internal ones ”” in the first weeks in office.

Marois seems likely to be crowned rather than chosen by a party with no real choices, especially after Gilles Duceppe declared against her one day and withdrew in support of her the next, surely the shortest leadership canpaign on record in any Western democracy. This makes her authority at launch date even greater, and the speed with which it will decline even more precipitous. It will be tempting ”” and cautious advisers’ voices will unanimously counsel this ”” to avoid a bitter convention brawl over the long- term sovereignist project of the PQ.

But this will prove to be one of those rare occasions when discretion will prove the riskier part of political valour. For Marois to present a credible face to the Quebec electorate, and to pre-empt the internal ankle-biters, she needs to launch herself as leader not only personally victorious, but with a new set of political commandments securely in hand.

The renewal of the party’s mud- dled, dated and unsaleable social dem- ocratic vision is the first candidate for the axe. Without ditching the high-tax, high-deficit, nanny-state baggage of the party’s past there is no path to gov- ernment. The most recent elections in Quebec ”” one federal, one provincial ”” have demonstrated voters’ impa- tience with that discredited political agenda. PQ voters may not be entirely persuaded by a neo-liberal economic or social agenda, but the combination of lousy public service delivery and high service delivery costs is dead on arrival.

Whether it is the approach taken by the Blairites ”” invest heavily in service improvement while forcing consumer choice on the public sector unions and entrenched professions in health and education ”” or a gentler model matters less than that the party is seen to commit to real change.

Some might argue that this is the easier task, that challenging the hard- line separatists internally over the sover- eignty timetable will be her real test, but they ignore the power of the Quebec trade union movement in the party. Bureaucrats of the Fédération des tra- vailleurs et travailleuses du Québec and the Confédération des syndicats nationaux and the hundreds of PQ del- egates they control will be less enraged by a forced delay in the sovereignist dream than by an attack on union priv- ilege in the public sector, and a turn to the political centre.

The collapse of sympathy with ”” forget solidarity with ”” the behaviour and demands of Quebec’s teachers, municipal workers, hospital and university staffs, and even police forces is visible across the province and across the political spectrum. The PQ needs to make clear that those pining for the days of 1960s class rhetoric are free to choose Québec Solidaire as a more comfortable home.

If the price of recapturing con- trol of the public sector as a govern- ment and reconnecting to a majority of Quebec voters as a responsible progressive champion is the depar- ture of some of the party’s local trade union leadership and their allies, the price will have been eminently worth paying.

This is not to minimize the finesse required on the question national to an audience whose sovereignist dream has been battered and shaken, but for whom it remains the core of their political alle- giance. Here again, the political path for a new PQ, or a renewed PQ, diverges in two starkly different directions.

One leads in the direction of ETA and the tragedy of the Basques. The other leads in the direction of the IRA and the still fresh and untested miracle that is Northern Ireland. Yes, it is true that the Quebec national ques- tion has been debated and decided without violence ”” on two occasions, in 1980 and again in 1995 ”” and the most fundamental questions of the country have been determined without a single shot being fired.

But the most painful recognition that the Irish nationalists had to make was not only the dead end that violence represented. It was also the more painful reality that power was inevitably going to have to be shared with the enemy if it was to be enjoyed at all; that a ”œfed- eral Ireland” was not only the best that was possible, it was all that was possi- ble, other than endless violent struggle.

Some of the aging ETA leadership have understood and accepted the same calculus, entering into serious negotia- tions to secure special status for the Basques in the newly federal Spain. Sadly, some among them could still not avoid the temptation of using a ”œlittle bomb- ing” to nudge negotiations, sabotaging progress for perhaps years as a result.

The Scottish Nationalists have just had their equivalent of the PQ’s 1976 victory. They, too, will discover that voters aren’t really keen on the disrup- tion that giving birth to a new nation state would entail. They’ll also discover, as the PQ was shocked to hear privately from successive occupants of the Élysée, that heads of existing states are rarely keen to undermine their peers.

If the PQ rejects the dead-end strat- egy of nationhood, or at least places it in indefinite limbo, its future as a gov- erning party in Quebec is secure.

To be the party that best puts Quebec’s interests first, that is a powerful and, yes, principled defender of their communities’ dif- ferent and particular interests is a legitimate and potentially com- pelling political role. It is also space where there is room for two champi- ons to compete.

It is, however, never going to rock the political soul as the dream that seized the election night crowd on November 15, 1976, did. That flag- waving, anthem-singing celebration of the national crusade that was René Lévesque’s first triumph is hard to beat as a political tonic.

The Quebec electorate has demonstrated many times in the years since then that as powerful a vision as that may have been, it now has more pru- dent demands of its lead- ers. Mario Dumont calls it autonomism ”” a respectable political thesis employed around the world, despite the sneers of sovereignists and federal- ists alike. Over two genera- tions, many others tried to defend a distinct place for Quebec in Canada as ”œspe- cial status” and died on that political sword, attempting to defend it to the rest of Canada.

However it is branded next, the components of the vision are well understood. They are the ones endorsed by voters as different as Catalans, Scots, Lebanese, Kurds, Balinese and Malaysian citizens: ”œAs part of a larger community or state, we treasure our social, language and cultural differences, and we will pay a price politically and economically to preserve those elements that make our culture and community unique.”

It will take real leadership to per- suade a ”œmovement” party that not only is there no dishonour is this con- ception of Quebec, it is the best guar- antor of its future. Those who argue that there is not room for two ”œsoft nationalist” agendas on the Quebec stage, and that Mario Dumont has occupied this ”œautonomous but Canadian” space, are ignoring the wide range of values and interests of Quebec voters.

Quebec voters may be moving beyond the politics of the tribe, but like voters everywhere they con- tinue to make philosophical and polit- ical distinctions among a variety of other choices.

If Dumont continues to flirt with an anti-cosmopolitan, anti-urban, even anti-immigrant message, a PQ defence of an open, tolerant, proudly multi-ethnic, big-city Quebec will be that much more successful, especially with younger voters.

If Charest and Dumont champion a fiscally conserva- tive, pro-business reform agen- da, the space for a PQ progressive reform message focused on working families and new Québécois voters widens.

If Stephen Harper is suc- cessful in further marginalizing the federal Liberal Party in the province, while these new bleu et rouge nationalist parties are evolving, it is not clear how large the space remains for provincial Liberals.

Nor it is obvious what role the Bloc would have in this new political constellation. Few normal provincial parties in gov- ernment want to have an intermediary group of politicians speak- ing for them in Ottawa. If the ADQ were in power in Quebec City, it is hard to see how Bloc MPs would add any- thing but potential confusion, or com- petition for political credit, in Ottawa.

For Quebec voters, typically very sensitive to the value of access to government where local needs are concerned, it is even less clear why a Bloc MP would be more attractive. If the Tories, and even the NDP, are suc- cessful in carving out new ridings for themselves in the province, most opinion research seems to indicate that they will come out of the Bloc’s political hide.

If even some of this redrawing of the Quebec political landscape comes to pass, it could generate a powerful beneficial change for Canada and its place in the world. Consider how a majority govern- ment in Ottawa, with a significant Quebec caucus, facing two strong opposition parties, each with its own Quebec stars, would transform the perception of federal politics in Quebec, and change Quebec’s role in Canada in the eyes of every other Canadian. Such a finely poised bal- ance of regional and philosophical political forces we have never seen in our history.

A politics that turns on what is best for Quebec taxpayers, not the chimera of a future state; a politics where strong ”œnationalist” genes inform both strong centre-right and centre-left parties, and ”œseparatist” dreams exist only on the margins; a world where the proof of performance is how politicians improve the future for individual Quebecers, not how well they spar with Ottawa ”” this would surely be a healthier political world, for all Quebecers and every other Canadian.

A federal government that stopped wasting millions in shadow- boxing and matching Quebec’s role on a global stage and a Quebec government that wasted less on its faux- diplomatic trappings around the world would be better governments for all their taxpayers. A federal and a Quebec government that demonstrat- ed they could share the spotlight at UNESCO and elsewhere internation- ally would be a beacon to the world, as the latest genius of our evolving federalism.

A Quebec nationalist party that can celebrate its francophone her- itage, whose political vision is inclu- sive, tolerant and proud; that can promise a governmental project which finds a new balance between state and enterprise, community and individual space; and that understands Quebec’s need to play on a global stage would be a very hard party to beat. When René Lévesque first set out to transform Quebec and Canadian politics, Quebec society was only a decade removed from its painful histo- ry as a white, Catholic, insular, economically exploited semi- rural backwater ”” a society where a majority of its citizens had to give up their mother tongue to succeed in business, and leave their province to play on a world stage.

The success that the PQ helped deliver for Quebecers transformed the face of the province, exploded the range of choice for its cit- izens and set the stage for an entirely new set of political challenges. Today the party can decide to once again place itself as the architect of an excit- ing new future for Quebecers, or to join the traditional Quebec Catholic church as simply another relic of the province’s long, proud and often sad history.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License