Quebec's three-way election race, with patchwork regional support for each party, has made this campaign the least predictable - and, many say, the most interesting - in recent history. And yet the short campaign has been hollow, dominated by static about non-issues, marked by a confused and inconclusive leaders' debate, and interrupted by a federal budget.
What seems clear, four days before the vote, is that Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec is poised for a breakthrough. He had a one-man toehold in the National Assembly from 1994 to 2003, and improved that to four seats in 2003. By all the evidence he will do much better on Monday.
In the long run, this is excellent news for Quebec. A substantial third party is a vital pre-condition for what we might call normal politics. As noted in this space last week, the real political questions we should be discussing involve the role and size of the state in society and the economy, and how supple Quebec can be in responding to demographic and economic challenges. This debate between "lucides" and "solidaires" goes on, under various names, in many jurisdictions, while we remain immobilized in our endless sterile squabble over sovereignty. Once that option recedes, real debate can begin.
But is the ADQ sufficiently federalist to permit us to hope this sea-change is really starting? Dumont has tried to triangulate his way out of his support for the Yes side in the 1995 referendum, saying he wants no part of any rematch. But he does propose to reopen the whole constitutional question, write a new constitution for Quebec and otherwise stir the pot.
There is, however, more than "autonomism" to the ADQ. Dumont, a small-government social conservative, has built his campaign around families. His voters want pork in their beans. He is strongly supported in regions with a history of backing protest parties, though he is also doing well in Quebec City, especially among young voters there, apparently. His backers see the older parties as captive to Montreal.
He could hardly form a government if he did win. Very few ADQ candidates have any National Assembly experience.Very few are "ministrable." There are precious few minority candidates, and few anglophone ones. The party will be shut out on Montreal Island. Dumont will find little immigrant or ethnic support for his hard line on reasonable accommodation. His scheme to abolish school boards would be a disaster for anglophones.
In short, the ADQ is very far from being ready to govern, or from deserving anglophone and allophone support.
For all its limitations and flaws, however, the ADQ does have the potential to develop into a serious conservative party. Quebec would be well served by the ADQ becoming, sooner or later, a non-sovereignist alternative.
We will waste little space here with the Parti Quebecois and its obsession with driving Quebec toward sovereignty. It is reassuring, in a way, that many dedicated sovereignists disdain Andre Boisclair. But putting the PQ back in office would bring discord, distress, even disaster.
The Green Party, and the left-wing Quebec solidaire, are welcome additions to the political landscape. Firm beliefs clearly stated - almost no matter what those beliefs might be - are admirable in politics. But plainly neither of these parties could, or should, govern Quebec.
That leaves the Liberals. "We are ready," they promised four years ago, vowing bravely to reengineer government, reduce the burden of the nanny state, and cut taxes. They were in many ways "lucides" before their time.
Once elected, however, they ran into well organized resistance from
unions, students and the PQ. They lost their nerve, abandoned their platform, and reverted to government as usual. Taxes stayed high, social programs expanded, demergering was fouled up and public-private partnerships withered away. Government shrank a bit in manpower, but not as a share of the economy.
They have had some successes. Most importantly, Ottawa-Quebec relations are better today than they have been in many years. Boisclair and others who pretend that Quebec is on its knees in this relationship simply have not been paying attention. In addition, salary equity has been settled. Quebec's credit rating is better. Some medical wait times have been shortened. A start has been made on tackling government debt. The grade-school day has been lengthened. Spending on maintaining highways and infrastructure is reaching respectable levels.
Take the good with the bad and this is only an adequate record to run on, which perhaps explains the lacklustre Liberal campaign. Quebecers liked the Liberals better four years ago, when they stood for something.
If Jean Charest and his party can weather the current storm and salvage another majority on Monday, the ADQ as a conservative opposition party could well prod the Liberals to reinstall the backbone they abandoned after the 2003 vote. A Liberal government re-energized to attack the ponderous, costly, and paralyzing "Quebec model" could open the way out of our economic lethargy and social inertia.
That is the best choice for Quebec on Monday.