What happens in Quebec in 2006 won't just stay in Quebec

Élections 2006

Whatever 2006 has in store for Quebec will affect the whole of Canada. So here is a partial list of developments to watch for in the coming months.
The impact of the Jan. 23 federal election: There's not much suspense about who will be the big winner in the province -- the Bloc Québécois is poised to capture a huge majority of the seats. What will be interesting, though, is Quebeckers' reaction to the party that forms the minority government.
If the old, tired Liberal Party is returned to office for a fifth mandate, its victory will be received in Quebec with a big yawn. The federal-provincial dynamics will be more of the same. A Conservative victory, though, would open a new chapter that might not be as negative as some believe. It certainly would come as a shock, but, if Stephen Harper plays his cards well, it might trigger renewed interest in federal politics. At least things would be moving.
The other element to watch for will be the percentage of the vote obtained by the Bloc. If it is more than 50 per cent, it will give a strong momentum to the sovereigntist movement. The impact would be purely psychological, though, since a vote of more than 50 per cent cannot be translated into a vote on a referendum. The many non-sovereigntists who vote for the Bloc because it is a risk-free move will not vote Yes to a referendum on sovereignty.
The fate of the Charest government: Last year was an annus horribilis for the provincial Liberals, who were stuck at a record low in the polls. Yet, in his end-of-the-year interviews, Premier Jean Charest looked happy and optimistic. Negotiations with the combative public-sector unions -- always a perilous exercise -- are now behind him. He received the unexpected support of two former Parti Québécois leaders, Lucien Bouchard and Pierre-Marc Johnson, who agree with his socio-economic agenda.
Mr. Charest has a clean slate; he will reshuffle his cabinet before the parliamentary session resumes in March, and he probably plans to introduce a few popular policies such as tax cuts. And he obviously relishes the idea of facing neophyte PQ Leader André Boisclair. So if all this doesn't improve his standing, the Liberals should seriously worry about the outcome of the next provincial election.
The first test of André Boisclair: In his first weeks as PQ leader, Mr. Boisclair has been somewhat erratic. He tends to recoil from controversial issues, and his rare declarations are so evasive and full of clichés that La Presse cartoonist Serge Chapleau now routinely shows him swallowing pre-recorded cassettes. At a rare press conference, Mr. Boisclair chided the reporters who asked him what he would have done about the public-sector negotiations if he had been in office: "Well, don't expect me to start commenting on the headlines and telling you what I would do if I were premier." A strange remark, since this is what people expect from the leader of the opposition.
There are divisions to expect within the PQ. The committed sovereigntists don't trust Mr. Boisclair, and the party's left wing is furious at his refusal to promise to reopen the public-sector contracts. For the time being, Mr. Boisclair looks like a junior sidekick to the more seasoned Bloc leader, Gilles Duceppe. The coming months will show whether Mr. Boisclair can develop strong leadership abilities.
Health-care reform: This issue will serve as a precedent for the other provinces. In the weeks after the federal election, Quebec Health Minister Philippe Couillard will follow up on the Supreme Court's Chaoulli decision by submitting for public discussion a policy draft that would allow people to buy private insurance for medical services already covered by the Régie de l'assurance-maladie. Observers expect a moderate proposal -- one, for instance, that would limit private coverage to elective surgeries for which there are very long waiting lists, such as cataracts and knee and hip replacements.

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