The defection of a federal New Democrat politician to the Bloc Québécois has given new life to Conservative accusations that sovereigntist sentiments are festering on the benches of the NDP.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper ended a news conference in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., on Thursday by making note of the decision of Claude Patry, the MP for Jonquière-Alma, to quit the NDP and sit with the four members of the Bloc.
"I am somewhat concerned, but I can say it's not a big surprise," he said without being prompted by a question from reporters. "There is a certain ambiguity within the NDP caucus in Quebec as to Canadian unity. There are a lot of connections between the NDP Quebec caucus and Quebec Solidaire [a provincial separatist party], and I am not surprised to see this type of development."
The move by Mr. Patry spells more trouble for NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, who must sell his party as the federalist option in Quebec while being careful not to offend the soft nationalists in that province whose support lifted his party to the rank of Official Opposition.
Mr. Patry was first elected in 2011 as part of the so-called Orange Wave that saw large numbers of Quebec voters abandon the Bloc to support then NDP leader Jack Layton. Some of those new MPs have subsequently been asked to explain their separatist ties.
Nycole Turmel, who served as interim leader of the NDP following the death of Mr. Layton, was forced to admit being a card-carrying member of the Bloc Québécois and Québec Solidaire, a party that also been supported financially by Alexandre Boulerice, the NDP MP for Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie.
In announcing his defection, Mr. Patry made his own leanings clear. "I voted for Quebec sovereignty in the last two referendums. I hoped that Quebec should become a country and I still hope for that," he said in a statement. Mr. Patry said it was the NDP position on Quebec secession that pushed him to the Bloc. The New Democrats recently introduced a private member's bill that says any referendum question on separation would have to be acceptable to both the federal and provincial governments. Mr. Patry said he does not believe the federal government should have veto power over the wording. The NDP position, he said, "demonstrates unequivocally that the party favours Canada's interest over those of the Quebec nation."
For his part, Mr. Mulcair reminded reporters that the New Democrat policy on separation, which also says a simple majority of 50 per cent plus one in a referendum would be enough to trigger negotiations around Quebec separation, was spelled out in a 2005 party document called the Sherbrook Declaration. "Claude ran on that platform, he defended it, he's always agreed with it," he said.
Mr. Mulcair also pointed out that Mr. Patry had voted in favour of an NDP motion that would declare the seat of a politician who defected from one party to another to be vacant. He called upon Mr. Patry "to step down from his seat in Jonquière-Alma and run in a by-election if he thinks that the people of his riding support him."
But when asked if there could be other people within the federal NDP who share Mr. Patry's separatist inclinations, the New Democrat Leader ducked the question.
It is not the first time that the federal New Democrats have lost a Quebec caucus member since their success in the 2011 election. Lise St-Denis, the MP for Saint-Maurice-Champlain, moved to the Liberals a year ago.
Nik Nanos, president of the polling firm Nanos Research, said Mr. Patry's defection highlights the reality that, in Quebec, the NDP is more of a popular front against Stephen Harper than a unified voice for the party's social democratic policies.
"This former NDP caucus member is saying that he is a sovereigntist and he believes in a separatist Quebec," Mr. Nanos said. "So [Mr. Mulcair] has to manage that because then the question is, are there other NDP caucus members that may have the same view as this individual?"