Separatism is far from dead

Reactions in English Canada to the recent Quebec election result have been largely characterized by equal measures of ignorance and wishful thinking.

Vers la République québécoise

Mario Dumont, Quebec's new Opposition leader, probably won't do as well in the next election.
QUEBEC (Apr 16, 2007)

Reactions in English Canada to the recent Quebec election result have been largely characterized by equal measures of ignorance and wishful thinking.

The Liberals won 48 seats with 33 per cent of the vote -- a loss of 28 seats and 13 per cent of its support from the previous election -- while the Parti Québécois won 36 seats with 28 per cent, a loss of nine seats and five per cent. The Action démocratique du Québec won 41 seats and 31 per cent, a gain of 37 seats and 13 per cent. The result: a Liberal minority government led by Jean Charest and an official Opposition led by Mario Dumont.

In mid-March, based on an analysis of the polls and trends, I predicted a Liberal minority government with the ADQ taking 20 seats and the PQ emerging as a weak official Opposition.
And that might have been closer to the outcome had the leftist and militant sovereigntist party, Québec Solidaire (QS), running in 123 of 125 seats, not pulled almost four per cent of the popular vote. In fact, Québec Solidaire acted as the spoiler for the sovereigntist movement in at least five seats that would have gone PQ had the QS not run, thus denying three seats to the ADQ and two to the Liberals (including Charest's seat in Sherbrooke). The result then would have been: Liberals, 46 seats; PQ, 41 seats; ADQ, 38 seats.

But English Canadian politicians and commentators can't be bothered with important nuances like Québec Solidaire. They just see what they want to see. Hence, the Quebec election result was a victory for federalism, a vote of confidence in Quebec's place in Canada, a massive defeat of the sovereigntist movement, the end of the PQ in Quebec and the Bloc in Ottawa, a vote of confidence in the Harper government . . . and on and on went the hallucinations, each one more fantastic than the last.

It's no wonder English Canadians fail to understand Quebec, given the kind of political leaders we have and the media chatterers who see the world in 30-second ahistorical clips.
The fact is fully 63 per cent of Quebec's voters voted against federalism as we know it, when you combine the votes for the ADQ, the PQ and QS. The ADQ's Mario Dumont is not a federalist, nor is he in love with Canada. He likes Harper as prime minister, as do many Québécois nationalists, because Harper believes in weakening the federal government and devolving more and more powers to the provinces. This is what Harper means when he talks about "open federalism" -- the end of a strong central government.

Dumont broke with the Quebec Liberals over the Charlottetown Agreement, joined Jean Allaire in founding the ADQ, and adopted the Allaire Report as the ADQ's foundational document.

Remember the Allaire Report commissioned by the Robert Bourassa government after the collapse of Meech? Allaire recommended sweeping powers for Quebec, provoking outrage in English Canada and pushing up support for sovereignty in Quebec.

Dumont officially joined Parizeau and Bouchard on the Yes team for the 1995 sovereignty referendum. When the ADQ became a permanent fixture on the political stage, with Dumont winning his own seat in the 1994 and 1998 elections, and then breaking through with 18 per cent and four seats in 2003, Dumont began to fashion his own niche on Quebec's political landscape. With the PQ occupying the centre-left and the Liberals occupying the centre-right of the ideological spectrum, Dumont occupied the far right.

Dumont is sort of a mixture of the Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper of Quebec. He fashioned a Quebec version of the neo-conservative agenda, attacking big government, high taxes, proposing privatization of public assets and two-tier health, savaging big unions and excessive social spending. This resonated among the alienated rural right wing and the marginal small business community.

The PQ and the Bloc had a lock on the sovereigntist movement, so Dumont adopted a conservative nationalist position reminiscent of the old Union Nationale. He opposed any more referendums, declared in favour of Quebec autonomy (echoing the earlier call by the Union Nationale that Quebec should be an autonomous state within the federation), demanding Quebec's own constitution and definition of citizenship. To this far-right mix, which Dumont developed after the 1995 referendum, for the 2007 election Dumont added a heavy dose of anti-immigrant, anti-gay and anti-big city demagoguery.

Presto! Dumont made a big breakthrough. But is it sustainable, given Quebec's progressive political culture? Is the ADQ, as many in English Canada are now crowing, "a government in waiting"? Is the ADQ poised to replace the Quebec Liberal party?

Probably not. The ADQ's showing in this election is a flash in the pan and in the next election Dumont will be driven back into his right-wing enclave, winning 15 to 20 per cent of the votes and 10 to 15 seats. The PQ will dump Boisclair and replace him with Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe, currently the most popular politician in Quebec. The Quebec Liberals could be led by a dog (and many insist they currently are) and still win their loyal federalist base in Montreal's West Island.

Quebec federalists do not trust Dumont, seeing him as the double incarnation of Quebec's Maurice Duplessis and France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. The Quebec people won't go for Dumont's far right neo-conservative agenda on health, social spending, a stripped state and a dog-eat-dog free market economy. The intelligent business community will see him as an ideological disaster waiting to happen if he wins power, provoking strikes and social upheaval.

Will the ADQ's showing help Harper in the next federal election? Will all those voters who voted for the ADQ's right-wing program go for Harper? Probably not. Most of the ADQ vote was a protest vote, mainly to punish Charest and the Liberals, and secondarily to slap the PQ in the face. Most of these protest voters, having made their point, and having witnessed the fall of both Charest and Boisclair from grace, will return home in the next election, an election the PQ will probably win.

It will be interesting to see how English Canadian politicians and commentators interpret that election.
There has now been time to assess the political impact of Harper's budget. It has been a big disappointment for Harper. His huge $2.2 billion gift to Quebec to help Charest probably salvaged the Liberals as a minority government, but turned Quebec into a political nightmare of contention and division. In the aftermath of the budget, Harper enjoyed a bump up in the national polls, one putting him at 40 per cent, the other at 39 per cent. Both recorded a large lead over Dion's Liberals.
The bump up in the polls didn't last, making it the most expensive and shortest-lived budget bump in polling history. An Ipsos-Reid poll in late March, after both the budget and the Quebec election, recorded the Tories falling back to 36 per cent, with the Liberals at 31 per cent. These numbers, and those for the other three parties, almost perfectly reflected the results in the last federal election.

But the bad news for the Tories is that after the brief bump, they have fallen everywhere in Canada except Alberta and Quebec. In Alberta they stayed the same. How could you improve on 58 per cent? In Quebec the Tories went up one measly point. Is this value for money, at a cost of $2.2 billion?

But Harper still seems determined to provoke an election. This might be an act of desperation, since the trend may be all downhill from here for the Tories after the budget failed to deliver, and when the mess Harper helped create in Quebec becomes obvious for all to see.
J.F. Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist and the author of Debts to Pay: The Future of Federalism in Quebec.


J.F Conway1 article

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J.F. Conway is a University of Regina political sociologist and the author of {Debts to Pay: The Future of Federalism in Quebec}.

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