Quebec has given itself - just barely - a Liberal government. The winning party was apparently third among franco-phone electors. The new official opposition has only a handful of incumbent National Assembly members. The Liberal leader barely won his own riding. The party that governed less than four years ago is now third, and its leader's critics will not be patient. It's going to be an interesting time in Quebec City.
Voters who wanted change certainly got plenty of it last night. Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec became the official opposition, and the Parti Quebecois fell to third place. The old federalist-sovereignist polarity was shattered, perhaps permanently.
Anglophone and allophone voters remained largely loyal to the Liberal Party. As a result, Montreal, some off-island suburbs and the Gatineau area are now the Liberal stronghold. The party of Robert Bourassa will somehow have to rebuild itself in "the regions" or risk becoming merely "the party of Montreal."
Both the Liberals and the Parti Quebecois might well have new leaders before the next election, whenever that may come.
In the meantime, there is the small matter of governing the province. Minority governments rarely lead to good long-term, or even medium-term, decision-making. And now Quebecers find themselves living with two minorities, one federal and one provincial.
Still, Stephen Harper's 14-month-old government in Ottawa seems today as stable as the Rock of Gibraltar compared to the perilous equilibrium we have in Quebec City. There, where there's no experience of minority rule, we now have three parties barely separated in the popular vote, any two capable of out-voting the third in the Assembly, insurgent rookies, leadership fights in the offing ...
After a generation of PQ-Liberal paralysis, Quebec politics have become astonishingly volatile lately. A year ago, Jean Charest and his Liberal government seemed doomed. A month ago, the conventional wisdom was that he would win a new majority. But last night, he fell so badly short of that that for an anxious hour Action democratique seemed to have a chance of forming a government.
What a sweet night it was for Mario Dumont, whose lonesome wandering in the wilderness of not-even-an-officially-recognized-party status has suddenly become a triumphant parade. Not quite winning an election can rarely have looked as good to anyone as it looks to him today. Now he will have no trouble getting better candidates next time, he'll have more money, more staff ... and most of all the Liberals will have to take at least some of his ideas seriously if they want to avoid, for a while, another confrontation with the electorate.
But beyond the leaders and their fates, what will this change mean for the people of Quebec? All this tumult, and a few months of extemporaneous minority politicking, would be a small price to pay if they mark, as we hope, the beginning of the end for the whole endless pointless hopeless quest for Quebec sovereignty.
Does this election truly signal a realignment of our politics? We hope so.
One mainspring of last night's results, we believe, was that francophone voters have grown weary of voting through the eternal lens of la question nationale. A generation ago that argument was riveting; now it's stale and shopworn. How easy it was, then, for voters from both parties to defect to Action democratique.
Secondly, many voters were also fed up, we think, with a government of caretakers. The Liberals have been free of scandal, but they have also been devoid of vision.
During the 2003 campaign, the Liberals sounded both wise and purposeful. Positioning themselves as "lucides" before that term was coined, they spoke of transforming Quebec to face today's challenges. They promised to pry Quebec's economy and society out of the clammy grip of the state. But instead of the promised billions in tax cuts, they added new social programs. They lost their nerve about public-private partnerships. They broke their promise to liberate suburbs from the cruel embrace of mega-cities.
"Responsible management of the public finances?" Yes, up to a point. But Quebec's total government debt keeps growing, despite the irresponsible fiction about "deficit zero."
Health care? Even some Liberal MNAs admit the improvement has been marginal. True, health-care costs are swelling uncontrollably, and governments across Canada are running as hard as they can just to avoid losing ground. But the Liberals have not nearly lived up to their brave talk on health care.
In the new political landscape, we hope the Liberals in office will be strongly influenced by some, though not all, of the ADQ's orientations.
No Quebec government can pander to the baser instincts of small-town nationalism. But the Liberals should now be able to hold ADQ support if they will rediscover clarity of purpose on smaller government, balanced books, respect for individuals and for families and for those who pay the taxes.
The Liberals abandoned all that right after voters gave them a comfortable majority in 2003, and last night they paid the price.