Published in the Montreal Gazette on February 11, 2013
With all the recent hullabaloo over Pauline Marois’ controversial visit to Scotland and her seemingly awkward first acquaintance with the Scottish separatist leader, Alex Salmond, one very important issue has been little reported in the press on this side of the Atlantic (“Pauline Marois lays a Scotch egg” and “Marois should have known Scottish trip would flop”, Gazette, January 31, 2013, Editorial pages).
The very day after the Quebec Premier dropped by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh for her somewhat bizarre meeting with Salmond, the United Kingdom Electoral Commission (www.electoralcommission.org.uk) ruled that, after an extensive study, the original question proposed by the Scottish Parliament for their 2014 referendum on independence from Great Britain was misleading, and would be changed.
For those who don’t know, the initial phraseology of the question for their proposed consultation was to be: “Do you agree that Scotland become an independent country?” Subsequent surveys conducted on the ground in Scotland itself concluded that that formulation might lead some individuals who generally like to agree (or to be agreeable) to vote “Yes” on the day of the ballot.
Accordingly, the Electoral Commission ‘suggested’ that the interrogative be changed to one somewhat more simple and, more importantly, neutral in tone: “Should Scotland become an independent country?”
Having essentially no choice in the matter, the separatist Scottish National Party quickly agreed to the modest modification, the U.K. – wide Electoral Commission having jurisdiction over the issue. It would seem that the general desire in all of Britain, including Scotland, is to have one, clear question, producing an unequivocal answer that would avoid any court challenges after the referendum is held.
So the Scots gets a six-word question, and somehow I suspect as well that there won’t be any 18-year-old Deputy Returning Officers throwing away valid ballots in the land of Macbeth.
Now speaking of Quebec, lets have a look at this province’s unwieldy history on our very own ‘question nationale’.
In May of 1980, in Referendum I, Quebecers were treated to a 106-word masterpiece of confusion (exactly one hundred more than that of Scotland) that intentionally avoided the use of two of the six words composing the interrogative to be put to the people of ‘Alba’ in the autumn after next. Those two pivotal words are: “independent country”. The 1980 Quebec referendum question also (again intentionally) included the comforting phrase “le reste du Canada” / “the rest of Canada” when referring to the parameters of the proposed negotiations.
Despite a phraseology that was highly suggestive, and far from neutral, as we all know the “Yes” side still lost to the “No” side 60% to 40%.
Jump ahead fifteen years to Referendum II held in the fall of 1995. For those of us who may have forgotten, the question was:
“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership within the scope of the bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on June 12, 1995?”
Note the construction “Do you agree” that the United Kingdom Electoral Commission rejected only days ago for the Scottish vote in 2014. The two words “independent country” are also again missing on the 1995 plebiscite ballot.
In fact, it’s worth pointing out that during the debate on the referendum issue held in the Quebec Legislature in 1995, the opposition Liberals proposed an amendment to the question itself by suggesting that the word ‘country’ be added, and to come after the word sovereign, as in Quebec become “a sovereign country.” Calculating if nothing else, the Parti Québécois majority government at the time voted the amendment down.
Notwithstanding the views of the current leadership of the NDP, the Clarity Act is the closest legal feature this country has in overseeing any future independence referendum in our province, or any other province for that matter. Public surveys conducted in Quebec at the time of law’s adoption in the year 2000 showed clearly that Quebecers believe that the federal authority does have a legitimate say in the construction of any future plebiscite question on the province’s future. In short, if there must be a Referendum III on the matter, Quebecers feel the question should finally be clear and to the point.
Failing that, perhaps we should refer any future Parti Québécois referendum phraseology to the United Kingdom Electoral Commission for their assessment. Knowing them, they would probably send something back to us that would read: “Should Quebec become an independent country?”
(below, the two leaders in Edinburgh in late January)