Before the last federal election, no seasoned political observer would have dared to bet on a reversal of fortunes for the New Democratic Party in Quebec. From 1931 to 2008, the NDP and its ancestor – the Commonwealth Cooperative Federation – failed to grab any seats in general elections. The NDP carrying 59 seats of Quebec’s 75 seats in the House of Commons on May 2nd is hence one of the most mind-boggling political events in recent history. In the aftermath of the election, the same seasoned political observers concentrated only on the sheer impressiveness of the “orange crush”. They have all failed to take notice of something that is much more subtle: the NDP does not fit ideologically with what Quebeckers believe.
The NDP is not supportive of privatization – regardless of the form it takes such as delegating management to the private sector or the outright sale of government assets. In this regard, it opposes the involvement of the private sector in the delivery of healthcare in order to increase the supply of medical services. The NDP has also argued that balancing the budget was not necessarily a priority and that such a policy objective ought to be achieved with tax increases. It also favours stronger intervention on the part of Ottawa in managing the economy and larger welfare programs. In short, its political manifesto is unambiguously social-democratic in nature.
This is why the NDP’s surge is so confusing. In the last five provincial elections in Quebec, right wing parties have always collected above 55% of votes. This rightward slouch can also be observed in polls where there are always more than 55% of individuals who admit to desiring more private sector involvement in healthcare delivery. Other polls show similar tendencies. For example, in a poll commissioned by the left-leaning Le Devoir, 46% of Quebeckers preferred a cut in government spending accompanied by a cut in taxes compared to only 9% desiring increased spending and 32% advocating the status quo. In a more recent poll, 51% of Quebeckers wanted the government to cut spending by an amount large enough to balance the budget in one year (the deficit stands at nearly $4 billion). Furthermore, the NDP is no friend of Quebec nationalism: it supported the despised Clarity Act, it has historically supported a strong central government in Ottawa and it was Elijah Harper, a NDP MLA in Manitoba, who delivered the fatal blow to the Meech Lake Accord.
How can the NDP win 59 seats with such views? Some have claimed that the 50-year long debate between federalists and separatists has confused Quebeckers so much that they have a hard time distinguishing left from right. This explanation conveys an ounce of truth since it has caused left and right to ally on occasion to promote their views with regards to the “national question”. However, this explanation is not sufficient. A stronger explanation stems from the political heritage of the Quiet Revolution.
Everyone born after the 1950s in Quebec has been taught to believe that “modern Quebec” started in 1960 with the defeat of the conservative Union Nationale, which had governed the province virtually undisputed since 1944. From 1960 onwards, Quebec became a rich and modern society and everything we have today is the heritage of the “Quiet Revolution”; everything before that moment was dubbed the “Great Darkness”.
Such a trick of political rhetoric does not only explain why provincial governments have failed to push forward serious economic reforms, but also explains the rise of the NDP.
It must be understood that the increasingly interventionist government of Quebec that rose out of the sixties opened the door to special interest groups. These groups demanded measures to protect them from competition and redistribute wealth towards them regardless of how viable the programs were. The costs of these programs were spread over a large population of taxpayers and consumers. So large was this population that the cost for a single taxpayer or consumer did not make it worthwhile to fight these policies. However, so large were the benefits to these interest groups that they did everything to make sure they obtained and kept what they lobbied the government for. The more nights they spent in bed with government, the more they adversely affected economic performance. One only needs to look at the $240 billion worth of public debt, the low rates of productivity growth, the high rates of unemployment, and the high spending levels (all relative to the rest of Canada) as witness to how adversely they affected the Quebec economy.
These interest groups have blocked every attempt at reform, regardless of how the general population felt instinctively and as we have seen above, Quebeckers are instinctively close to conservative views. Those who have a vested interest will be the first to accuse anyone who questions how “dark” was the “Great Darkness” to desire a return to the heydays of obscurantism. They will also accuse anyone who questions the policies currently in place of having an agenda to bring the province back to the “Great Darkness”. Accusations made regardless of the rising body of literature detailing the so-called Great Darkness as a period of rapid economic and social modernization (I have myself made this case in an earlier article in this journal).
However, due to their sheer size, these interest groups will hammer away their message until we see no other possible version of reality. No politician in his right mind dares to confront such interest groups who have the will and power to defeat him in order to support a majority of misinformed voters. After all, everyone who lacks a vested interest in the bloated, interventionist and morbidly obese Quebec government also lacks interest to investigate how harmful the policies in place are.
However, voters can see reality; they can feel it in their wallets and bank accounts. They may not understand how X and Y policy hurts them by prohibiting competition or by granting corporate welfare to one industry or another, but they do see that something is wrong when they are asked to pay more taxes while their incomes do not grow as fast as elsewhere in Canada. They do see the rising debt levels and they do see how long they have to wait in hospital waiting rooms with the sign “Emergencies” above their heads.
How can they not grow increasingly frustrated without desiring changes? They will vote for change regardless of the form it takes. How then can we explain Quebeckers being infatuated with the ADQ in 2002 only to elect the Liberals rather than the PQ and then only to return to the PQ in between the elections and then throwing them away in favour of the ADQ and then returning to the liberals and finally opting for a whole new party under François Legault. Dizzying? Such electoral volatility is indeed quite dizzying, but it does indicate ideological confusion. How then can we explain that since 2003, Quebeckers have preferred the federal liberals, then the Bloc Québécois, followed by the Conservatives, then a return to the Bloc Québécois and finally the NDP?
As a “founding moment” in Quebec history, the Quiet Revolution cannot be questioned and because it cannot be questioned, everything that is linked with it cannot be questioned either, let alone be reformed or thrown away. Corporate interest groups and unions understand this and they know how potent a political weapon it can be. Hence, they wield it often with frightening efficiency.
Voters are therefore confused between the reality they observe and the politically correct discourse. They will vote for anything that gives them the glimmer of a hope of changing things, even if the change they opt for is completely at odds with their beliefs – like the NDP.
The author holds an M.sc from the London School of Economics and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Economic History at the same institution.