Quebec's false turn, and its next realignment

If the polls are right, the Liberal status quo will be reinstated and the PQ is in for some psychoanalysis

Élection Québec - 8 décembre 2008

Mario Dumont's categorization this week of the Quebec Liberal Party as a "business" brings to mind Alexis de Tocqueville's distinction between political formations that are based on "interests" and those that are based on ideologies. In a democracy, neither type is inherently better than the other. If the latter clings "to principles rather than consequences," de Tocqueville observed nearly 180 years ago, the former "glows with fictitious zeal." Its language is "vehement," but its "conduct is timid and irresolute."
There are exceptions. Interest-based parties can occasionally be given to bold initiatives, as Jean Lesage's Liberals demonstrated during the Quiet Revolution. But the provincial Liberals - a species that admits no relation to its federal namesake - emerged as Quebec's natural governing party by straddling the mushy middle. The QLP places economic stability and social peace above all else, sometimes to the point of postponing worthy reforms, or ignoring demands from within, if they entail temporary or messy upheaval. Once in a while, its incrementalism becomes its own worst enemy.
The proof is that the two other parties contesting the Dec. 8 provincial election, not counting those on the fringes, were both formed by Liberals in a hurry. Forty-one years ago, René Lévesque stormed out of a Liberal convention when the party snubbed his idea of sovereignty association. A year later, he founded the Parti Québécois, a left-leaning formation with an explicit predisposition in favour of workers. Less than a decade later, it knocked the Liberals out of power.
Fifteen years after Mr. Lévesque's fateful exit, it was Mr. Dumont's turn to slam the door on his natural political home. Again, the pretext was a divergence over how to secure a new deal for Quebec within Canada. But by the time Mr. Dumont and his Liberal defectors put the meat on the bones of their Action Démocratique du Québec, it had become the vehicle for Quebec's disenfranchised right. And in the previous provincial election, in March, 2007, it came within a whisker of beating the Liberals.
That election had the markings of what the late American political scientist V. O. Key termed a "realigning election." The Liberals were reduced to 48 of 125 seats. Leader Jean Charest managed to win a minority government, but thanks only to the Liberals' seemingly permanent lock on about 70 per cent of the non-francophone vote, a base that ensures the party a minimum of roughly 25 seats. But the QLP finished third among the French-speaking majority. Most of francophone Quebec split between the ADQ and the PQ. For months after the election, polls showed the Liberals slipping further while the opposition parties gained ground. It seemed for a while that the Liberals could be reduced in the next election to a rump of seats in anglophone Quebec. Francophones - united in their resolve to assert their distinct cultural identity, an issue on which both the PQ and ADQ had equal credibility - seemed to be dividing according to a classic left-right cleavage.
But party realignments are like the transit of Venus. They are the rarest of political eclipses. The 2007 vote now looks as if it could go down as what Dr. Key labelled a "deviating" election, one during which there is a temporary shift in the electorate, but after which traditional voting patterns soon re-emerge. Deviating elections are more common. The 1990 election of Bob Rae's New Democrats in Ontario fits this description. No one can possibly know now whether Barack Obama's victory will end up carrying this label. It could, if the Democratic gains made among typically Republican parts of the electorate are tied more to Mr. Obama's magnetic personality than to a shift in values. But if his administration achieves a New Deal style of governance that has lasting consequences for U.S. politics, he will go down in history for much more than becoming the first African-American president.
The stakes are decidedly smaller in this Quebec vote. If, as Dr. Key noted in 1955, "elections differ in the proportion of the electorate" that is "psychologically involved," this one is so far a snoozer. Electors in the province that has consistently provided Canada with its best political drama are engaging in this election the way a pedestrian on an urban street listens to an ambulance or a fire truck. They're aware it's passing; how could they not hear the noise? They just don't feel it concerns them.
That could change. There are still two weeks left in the campaign, with a leaders' debate on Tuesday. An issue may emerge that jolts voters into action - the massive projected losses at the $155-billion Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which dominated the news yesterday, could be it.
If the latest polls are accurate, however, the Dec. 8 vote should go down as a "reinstating" election with the Liberals on top, the PQ second and the ADQ third. If Mr. Charest gets his coveted majority, it will only partly be because Quebeckers do not want to be bothered again for at least four years. It's also because Jean Charest 2.0 is a relative hit. A year ago, just 19 per cent of Quebeckers considered him the best qualified to be premier, far behind Mr. Dumont and PQ Leader Pauline Marois. This week's Léger Marketing poll for The Globe and Mail had Mr. Charest riding head and shoulders above his rivals at 43 per cent. He didn't get there exclusively by virtue of his opponents' poor performance.
Re-establishing Liberal cred among nationalist Quebeckers has been key to the party's revival. There may just be a bit of de Tocqueville's "fictitious zeal" in Mr. Charest's bellicose Ottawa-bashing. After all, he came to power in 2003 as the most federalist Quebec premier in recent history and has fled the word "constitution" like the plague. But portraying himself as the defender of Quebec's interests has paid dividends. Stephen Harper has the scars to prove it.
The Liberals, who had pundits preparing their obituary a year ago, now seem fairly secure as Quebeckers' default political choice. The fate of the other two parties after Dec. 8 could take years to sort out.
For most of its democratic history, Quebec politics has operated within a two-party system, making majority governments the rule. Flirtations with third parties have usually been short, if not always sweet. The Bloc Populaire emerged out of Quebec's opposition to conscription in the Second World War and lasted a single election at the provincial level. Maurice Duplessis performed his own unite-the-right magic with the 1936 merger of the Parti Conservateur and the fledgling, rural-based Action Libérale Nationale to form the Union Nationale. It won massive majorities in the 1940s and 50s.
For a third party, then, the ADQ has shown remarkable staying power. It is fighting its fifth election. Even if it only reaps the 15 per cent of the popular vote that the polls now attribute to it - down from 31 per cent in the last election - there would be little reason for Mr. Dumont or his followers to heed the advice of several pundits and "fermer boutique." Senator Jean-Claude Rivest, a former top adviser to Robert Bourassa who witnessed Mr. Dumont's fatal blow to his boss's Charlottetown Accord in 1992, suggested in La Presse this week that Quebec would be better off without the third party. "If the QLP and the PQ are also autonomist parties of the middle class, of what use is the ADQ?" he asked.
The answer is in the polls. If they are right, at least half a million Quebeckers will vote for the ADQ on Dec. 8. And that's assuming turnout is very low by Quebec standards, at around 65 per cent. The federal NDP won only 8.5 per cent of the vote in 2000. Would Canadian democracy have been better served if the NDP had folded then? At the very least, the ADQ serves a valuable purpose in a political system where those in government, and those with the next best chance of getting there, often seemed paralyzed by their fear of ruffling feathers. Their discourse is rendered sterile by a growing list of taboos. Health-care reform is the most obvious. Budgets deficits were the evil that dared not speak its name - at least until after the recent federal election.
In English Canada, Mr. Dumont usually makes headlines - and is rightly criticized - for whipping up populist fervour. But if votes were all the ADQ was after, it would imitate the Liberals. Instead, it challenges the status quo and stimulates debate about policy with its proposals (none of them exactly vote-getters) for private health care, weaning Quebec off equalization payments, partially privatizing Hydro-Québec, eliminating school boards and cutting government spending. And unlike his rivals, Mr. Dumont never, ever blames Ottawa for Quebec's ills.
It is the PQ, not the ADQ, that most risks imploding after Dec. 8. It is on its fourth leader this decade. The move to ditch the promise of a referendum on sovereignty was supposed to broaden the party's appeal. But Ms. Marois may not fare much better than André Boisclair, who wore the referendum albatross in 2007. Although it seems assured of at least second-place showing this time, the PQ is in for a long and very public psychoanalysis session after Dec. 8.
There may well be a party realignment in Quebec in the next few years. Just not the one we might have expected after the previous election.

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