What Quebec minority rule might look like

Jean Charest has one last rabbit to pull out of a hat today when the federal budget is unveiled, writes Pierre Martin

Québec 2007 - Analyse

If the current trend holds, those who will have dozed off before the final count is announced in the March 26 election are likely to wake up to a novel and unusual situation: A minority government in Quebec City.
The only minority government in Quebec occurred in 1878. The Liberals, practically at par with the Tories, managed to govern until the lieutenant-governor, freshly appointed by John A. Macdonald, handed power over to the Conservatives – an interesting story, but not a useful precedent.
According to last Thursday's Leger poll, the three main parties are virtually tied: the Liberal party has 33 per cent of the vote; the Parti Québécois and the Action démocratique du Québec both sit at 30 per cent.
Given Quebec's peculiar political geography, this puts the ADQ and PQ in front in terms of seats.
This, however, doesn't take into account the rabbit that Jean Charest still has in his hat, which will come from Ottawa today in the form of federal money raining over Quebec.
Still, I'm not quite ready to throw my toonie into our traditional departmental election pool, but I'm almost certain that my last-minute bet will involve some sort of minority government – and polls suggest two-thirds of Quebecers currently would make the same kind of prediction.
At this point, no permutation in the positions of the three parties is inconceivable.
We are thus left with three kinds of scenarios.
The more prudent prediction would be a Liberal government, with a PQ official opposition and a strong contingent of ADQ neophytes not far behind.
That would probably be the least unstable scenario, as the Liberals and ADQ both are parties of the right whose approach to federal-provincial relations is to demand as much as possible from Ottawa, and then some.
It would not be too much of a stretch for a Charest government held in place by Mario Dumont's goodwill to implement some of the ADQ's less problematic proposals, which are not far from the Liberals' own platform.
It might be unwise, however, to sharply accelerate the turn to the right initiated since 2003, which made the Liberals so unpopular throughout their first mandate.
Also, a defeated PQ would certainly be subject to internal strains strong enough to force André Boisclair to resign.
If Boisclair decides to fight the mutiny, or if the process of replacing him weakens the party, the temptation for Charest and Dumont to finish off the PQ and settle their own scores in an early election might be irresistible.
If, however, the PQ manages a swift and successful transition to a new leader, a snap election would be a more risky venture.
What if the PQ slips into third place? For Charest, any stable alliance with sovereignists would be unthinkable. But a destabilized PQ in search of a new leader would have little choice but to allow the Liberals to survive.
In the second set of scenarios, a PQ-led minority government might be an even more interesting prospect.
For one thing, it would make it impossible for the PQ to hold a referendum.
That might be better from their viewpoint than being forced to call a referendum with little or no hope of winning, but that situation would most probably fan the flames of discontent against Boisclair among the PQ's unruly militants.
Although weakened within his own party, Boisclair would have little choice but to remain as premier, as the other two parties would go for the kill rather than patiently wait for the PQ to find its new saviour.If Boisclair only manages such a half-victory, and if he compromises too much on his party's program to govern, he is unlikely to survive a vote of confidence from his own militants.
A third set of scenarios would yield an ADQ minority government, with the two established parties in tow.
Of course, the first consequence of this result would be a grace period of sorts for Mario Dumont, as the other two parties would face leadership transitions.
If the ADQ's roster of candidates is as weak as many perceive it to be, Dumont might find that his worst enemies are on his side.
Dumont would have a strong ally in Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, as Harper's Quebec constituency very largely overlaps with the ADQ electorate.
One problem for Dumont is that Harper might try to maximize his short-term gains in Quebec by raising expectations on the federal-provincial front, which he may not be able to fulfill in the longer run, and Dumont would have to take the fall later.
As Toronto Star columnist Chantal Hébert has written, Quebecers have recently become more interested in watching the daily theatre of the House of Commons under the suspense of minority rule.
Maybe they've come to like it so much that they can't resist staging their own homegrown version of the play in the National Assembly.

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Pierre Martin50 articles

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Pierre Martin est professeur titulaire au Département de science politique de l’Université de Montréal et directeur de la Chaire d’études politiques et économiques américaines (CÉPÉA). Il est également membre du Groupe d’étude et de recherche sur la sécurité internationale (GERSI)

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