It was the most significant political event of the season. It was also the least significant political event of the season. And for that reason, Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair's return to the National Assembly after Monday's almost universally ignored by-election is simultaneously fascinating and tedious. Confused? You're not alone.
I too am a little perplexed. Not sure what to make of the current situation. And there lies the fascinating part: How long, do you think, is it possible for an entire political system to be stuck before something dramatic happens?
Quebec politics has been jammed for a while now. Going almost as far back as the last referendum, in 1995. There was a bit of a grace period when Lucien Bouchard took over as premier from Jacques Parizeau in early 1996. Mr. Bouchard could, to some extent, inspire people; he had enough folks believing he knew what ought to be done for the good of the province and how to do it that the clouds of frustration dissipated briefly. Either that or Quebecers were so exhausted from the referendum they disengaged themselves from politics to preserve their sanity.
In any event, the grace period didn't last very long. And since Mr. Bouchard left office, in the spring of 2001, Quebec politics has been running around in circles. Oh sure, there were one or two exciting moments, such as the time, back in 2002, when it seemed that Mario Dumont's Action Démocratique du Québec was finally going to become a contender, or when Jean Charest's team was elected in the spring of 2003 and looked like it was about to shake things up real good. But neither gave more than a few months' relief.
Other than that, business has been grim. For Mr. Charest's Liberals it's been one unpopular decision after another, on top of not even coming close to looking like he might consider trying to implement part of his electoral promise to cut taxes by $1 billion a year. Support for the Liberals has been buried under the basement floor for almost three years.
For the ADQ, too, the post-2002 period has been extraordinarily difficult. Membership and popular support have melted away; in Monday's by-election in the Montreal south shore riding of Taillon, the ADQ candidate received only 13.5 per cent of the vote (the party did not put forward a candidate in the other by-election in the Montreal riding of Pointe-aux-Trembles, where Mr. Boisclair was running, and neither did the Liberals).
Despite its rivals' disarray, for the PQ, and particularly its new leader, the past year also proved horrendous. There was that nasty bit about Mr. Boisclair's past cocaine use, you'll recall, that rattled him badly even though it never came close to derailing his campaign. Then there were episodes, like the revelation that his party had accepted close to $100,000 in illegal donations from a central figure in the sponsorship scandal, where his petulant and dismissive reaction showed less-than-stellar character and worse political judgment. He is what Quebecers call soupe au lait, or short-tempered. Many blame him for the party's failure to capitalize on Mr. Charest's dreadful unpopularity.
Plus the long period between his election as leader, last November, and his election to the legislature this week was doubly bizarre. First, why take so long, when he could have run in last April's by-election or simply taken over the seat of an accommodating PQ MNA whenever he wanted? And second, after waiting so long, why run in an August by-election that got ignored due to people being away on vacation or otherwise busy watching their kids at the local pool? It sure wasn't a brilliant idea. When he finally did run, nobody cared.
He won easily. But that was the tediously predictable part of this story, particularly given that the other two mainstream parties didn't run candidates. The fascinating part was whether third parties, and especially the upstart left-wing Québec solidaire, would manage create some sparkle in lacklustre provincial politics.
They didn't. Even though by-elections are a perfect opportunity for citizens to vote for oddball candidates as a risk-free protest, and despite the popularity of its co-leaders Françoise David and Amir Khadir, Québec solidaire got only seven per cent of the vote in Taillon and eight per cent in working-class Pointe-aux-Trembles. A far cry from the 22 per cent it got last April.
So voters are deeply unhappy with the way things are but uninspired by the new and un-mainstream alternatives. I can't see how Quebec politics will ever manage to get unstuck.
It will be fascinating to see how long this situation lasts. In a really tedious way.