What Quebec’s Election Results Really Mean

Jean Charest’s impressive majority victory in the December 8, 2008 Quebec election should, at best, be met by conservatives with a collective shrug. The return to power of the Quebec Liberals is no great cause for enthusiasm, but no reason to fret either. The results confirm a regrettable truism of Canadian politics that if you do essentially nothing and govern simply by trying to offend the least number of people possible, you will likely be rewarded at the polls.

It is hard to think of even a single big-ticket accomplishment of the Charest Liberals’ more than five years in office, but the curly-haired lawyer from Sherbrooke must be given his due: he’s become the first Quebec Premier since Maurice Duplessis to win three straight mandates. He has been written off countless times, but somehow always manages to crawl back and confound the experts. If nothing else, Jean Charest is as an inspiring case study in tenacity and perseverance.

Charest won the election by portraying himself as a steady hand in turbulent economic times. In the months leading up to the writ drop he had set the stage for the campaign by making various changes in his entourage and in strategy. Charest brought in experienced politicos to staff his office and campaign team, distanced himself from the federal Conservatives, and took to using the nationalist rhetoric of being the great defender of “Quebec’s interests.” It worked. Despite having done relatively little during his 20-month minority government and promising more of the same during the election, voters rewarded him with a majority.

The campaign itself was one of the most uneventful in memory, due at least in part to election fatigue (it was Quebecers’ fourth time to the polls – twice federally, twice provincially – in the last three years.) After a sleepy first three weeks, things nearly got interesting toward the end when the Liberal-NDP coalition drama unfolded in Ottawa and the federal Conservatives began railing against the “separatists.” Speculation was that this might help the Parti Québécois (PQ), because many Quebecers perceive the term “separatist” as an insult to all, regardless of political stripe. There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that the unexpectedly high PQ showing was directly caused by this, although it seems like a plausible explanation. Regardless, it was not enough to seriously menace the Liberals.

With the Liberals in power for four more years, we can expect the same sort of steady, centrist, managerial-style government from Jean Charest. When he was first elected in 2003, it was on an ambitious platform of tax cuts and government reform. Charest failed to implement much of what he promised, and in 2007 was reduced to a minority government – the first such result in Quebec in more than a century. Interestingly, Charest’s weakened mandate was not directly a result of his government’s poor performance over the first term. Rather, it was due to an implosion of the PQ under its then-leader André Boisclair, and a surprise wave of public anger against so-called “reasonable accommodations” of minorities that a theretofore marginal party, the Action démocratique du Quebec (ADQ), exploited brilliantly to catapult itself to official opposition status.

The 2007 result, which saw the ADQ pick up 41 seats, shocked official Quebec to the core. But proving the old adage that one election is a fluke and that it takes two to make a trend, the ADQ was reduced to a paltry 16% of the vote and seven seats this time. Mario Dumont, the party leader since 1994, announced his resignation on election night. Without official party status, the ADQ will lose its research budget and other perks at the National Assembly. This is an unfortunate development for conservatism in Quebec. Even though the ADQ was far from perfect, it was the only mainstream party willing to openly criticize the sacred cows of the Quebec welfare state. With the departure of Dumont, the only well-known face in the party, its survival is now far from certain.

The ADQ was founded in 1994, principally by Dumont and Jean Allaire, an influential member of the Quebec Liberal Party. Allaire had earned a reputation as a fierce nationalist during the constitutional drama of the early 1990s. After the death of the Meech Lake Accord, Allaire penned a manifesto (commonly known as the “Allaire Report”) calling for a significant decentralization of power from the federal government to Quebec. The report was endorsed by the Quebec Liberals in convention, but subsequently disavowed by Premier Bourassa. The more nationalist faction of the Quebec Liberal Party was infuriated. Allaire and Dumont co-founded a group of party activists to oppose the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, and both later left the party together to found the ADQ. Allaire was the party’s first leader, but resigned a few months into the job due to poor health. Dumont, then aged 24, took over the helm and has been there ever since.

In more than 10 years of involvement in and observation of Canadian politics, I have never seen a party that was so severely misunderstood as the ADQ. Conservatives and most journalists in English Canada constantly refer to the party as being “right-wing” or “small-c conservative.” It is not. Indeed, it is hard to come up with a concise description of the party’s ideological orientation because it changes so often. There is no question the ADQ holds some conservative positions: it is pro-family, against high taxes and opposed to multiculturalism. At various times it has advocated such policies as school choice and two-tier healthcare, and more recently, the abolition of school boards.

But the party’s conservatism is inconsistent and is often tempered or even cancelled out by its nationalism. When a flurry of foreign buyouts of Montreal-based companies such as Bell Canada and Alcan occurred in the summer of 2007, Dumont was out calling for the Caisse de dépot et placement, the investment fund for Quebec pensions, to intervene and block the sales. (BCE, readers will recall, was at the time being acquired by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, not a foreign company, although some ADQers consider Ontario “foreign.”) In another disappointing move, during the 2008 campaign Dumont proposed to “privatize” Hydro Quebec by putting a meagre 7.5% of the electricity monopoly’s shares up for sale – to Quebecers only. Residents of other provinces and foreign citizens would have been barred from buying the stock under the ADQ proposal.

Because the ADQ changes its positions on issues so often, voters were confused. This hurt the party’s attempts to build long-term voter loyalty. But more than anything else, it is the ADQ’s calculated ambiguity on Quebec’s place in Canada (known in Quebec as “la question nationale”) that has been its biggest source of incoherence.

Mario Dumont was a high-profile supporter of the YES side in the 1995 referendum on sovereignty. Since then, the ADQ has gradually softened its line to adopt more of a crypto-federalist position. For several years it was calling for a moratorium on referendums – so, not really supporting a drive toward sovereignty, but not exactly opposing it either. In 2004, the party adopted its current position: calling for Quebec’s “autonomy” within Canada. The concept of Quebec “autonomy” is not new; Maurice Duplessis first used the term decades ago when he was Premier. The problem with this word is that it is only slightly less ambiguous than the ADQ’s previous stance: “autonomy” would effectively make Quebec a country within a country, with its own constitution and the right to become the sole collector of taxes. But because it would not be overt separation, it appears (and likely would be) more palatable than the PQ option.

Aside from the collapse of the ADQ, the other big story of the 2008 campaign is the resurgence of the PQ. This development cannot be understated. Much ink has been spilled about the idea that the PQ is a generational party, and that its mission has fallen out of step with a new generation of Quebecers. This appears to be unfounded. By winning 51 seats and 35% of the vote, the PQ is now the clear government-in-waiting again and the (essentially) two-party system in Quebec has been resurrected.

The most unfortunate aspect of the PQ’s comeback is the return to the binary sovereignist-federalist dynamic in Quebec’s political discourse. With the PQ as official opposition, the sovereignty debate will be back front-and-centre. The inevitable result is that the left-right debate on economic issues loses out. Yes, the PQ has put the prospect of another referendum on the backburner, even removing it from the party platform. But its commitment to eventual independence remains steadfast, and PQ leader Pauline Marois did not hesitate to invoke the dream of an independent country during the campaign. Back to the future.

Another unknown is Jean Charest’s own political future. Despite denials from those close to him, rumours persist that he still hopes one day for a return to Ottawa. It seems implausible at the moment. There is no sign Stephen Harper is going anywhere, and Charest’s behaviour during the fall federal election made federal Conservatives cringe. Charest and his ministers’ publicly criticized the Harper government on numerous occasions and even released an 18-point list of Quebec “demands” mid-campaign. It is believed that this hurt the Tories and helped give the Bloc new momentum. Tories tend to have long memories, so it would be difficult to envision Charest winning the federal Conservative leadership when it does open up one day. Then again, perhaps Charest is eyeing the leadership of another federal political party.

All this is to say Conservatives who care about building a viable conservative movement in Quebec have little to be optimistic about at the present moment, but as we know, things in politics can change very quickly.

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