It's amazing - and impressive - how good Gilles Duceppe has been looking so far. And I don't just mean within the milieu of Québec; it's tough not to notice the respect and begrudging admiration English Canada seems to be giving him. Well, at least where 'English Canada' means (a) English-language media not owned by Postmedia or Quebecor and (b) people I know and talk to here in Toronto.
Duceppe has really come out fighting, painting Harper as a hypocrite and a religious nut. He's waving that letter to Adrienne Clarkson around, he's speaking confidently, he's funny, he's passionate. He's (bizarrely) reassuring.
And he's speaking a hell of a lot of English. Why is he speaking so much English? Well, Québec has perhaps a million anglophones and allophones... could he be speaking to them? I suppose it's possible, though Québec anglos are about as likely to vote BQ as rural Albertans are to vote Liberal. I think Duceppe is speaking to 'English Canada' - to the other nine provinces where he doesn't field candidates.
Why? Duceppe's aura has always had to do with his not having to give a damn what the rest of Canada thinks of him. I realise he's never really gone out of his way to antagonise English Canada, but he's certainly not minded the hostility many outside of his province feel toward him. Or at least hasn't seemed to.
I hear noise that this change in tone precipitates a change in the BQ. People seem to be suggesting that he BQ is starting to look like dropping overt seperatism from their platform - or at least downplaying it - to broaden their tent. Well, I don't believe it. I don't see the Bloc abandoning independence. After all, if nothing else, they don't have to: their voting base is not entirely pro-independence, and they specifically do not commit themselves to making any moves toward independence (seeing that as entirely a provincial matter).
I think it's a bit different. I think Duceppe wants to be liked as much as possible, across the country. For a man who's been in federal politics for twenty years, there is a legacy issue: I think he'd like to be remembered well. I also think, though, that twenty years in the opposition genuinely constrains him. There is a certain percentage of BQ supporters (as, incidentally there is in the NDP) who see their party's natural place on the opposition, who genuinely think that the BQ can best serve Québec's interests by standing up to the federal government, not by participating in it.
I don't believe Duceppe believes this. I admire the BQ for not going the Sinn Féin 'abstention' route, for not letting its republican stance get in the way of the actual nuts-and-bolts of getting things done for its constituents.
To this end, the BQ is just 'another party' like the others in Commons. Like the SNP or the Plaid in Westminster. And if the goal is to 'get things done for Québec' - that is, if the medium-term goal is that - then why not do whatever it takes to actually get things done?
Duceppe wants to get things done. I sense this. He wants to participate. He wants to act and enact. Good for him. And of course to that end, if he really does want to participate in a more active manner in Ottawa, it helps to be liked (to even a small degree) by the voting populaces of his possible partners - either 'coalition partners' or just less formal deal partners. However Ottawa is going to work after 2 May.
So yes, it might seems hypocritical that the man currently lambasting Harper for his anti-coalition gestures just a few years ago discussed working with him toward that end, but I would argue that it's not at all - that even more than Jack Layton, Duceppe is willing to deal with whatever devil he can find to further his interests. After all, if you look strictly at the constitutional side of it, every other party is equally 'the devil'. His seemingly natural 'allies' the Liberals are even further from his views vis-à-vis national aspirations than the Conservatives.
But there's more here than coalition hopes. Duceppe is perhaps realistic enough to recognise that he can no longer work in any reasonable fashion with Harper, and that the numbers might very easily not allow him to work with the other two (or maybe three) parties. After 2 May, Duceppe might very easily find himself permanently stuck in his opposition chair.
Or rather, not at all. I think that if Duceppe doesn't walk away in May with a concrete arrangement affording him some real say in Ottawa, I think he'll step down and move to Québec City. They say he could parachute directly into Pauline Marois's job, perhaps paving the way for the strongest victory the PQ has ever had, whenever the next election occurs. It goes without saying, of course, that if such an event comes to pass, all the work he's doing at the moment painting Harper as a corrupt man out of touch with the voting public will serve as excellent practice for a future showdown with Jean Charest. And I think a Premier Duceppe would talk referendum, given the right mood - but not without actively engaging with the rest of Canada. It's clear Duceppe wants an independent Québec, but not one that functions as an enemy to what would remain of Canada. And as such he doesn't want to be an enemy either.
What he wants, seemingly is to be a 'partner'. In whatever way he can make that happen.
And good for him. There is a lot that all other party leaders can learn from him.