by David T. Jones
The election that took place in Quebec on March 26 was exceptional and important, with consequences for U.S. – Canadian relations. The author, a longtime observer of Canadian political affairs, explores the question and elaborates.—Assoc. Ed.
Normally to Americans a Canadian federal election is as interesting as kissing your sister.
And a Canadian provincial election is as interesting as kissing your mother-in-law.
But the 26 March Quebec provincial election was exceptional, both in political science terms and prospective national and international consequences.
First, the Bottom Line.
The ruling Quebec Liberal Party called an election well before it was necessary; it won a pyrrhic victory, devolving a substantial majority government into a slim minority—the first minority government in Quebec since 1878. The separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) was massively defeated, falling into third place. And a one-man-band, center-right party, the Action Democratique du Quebec Alliance Democratic Quebecois (ADQ), leaped from political wilderness into a close second place to become the Official Opposition.
So Why Did this Happen?
For 40 years, the Quebec polity had been frozen into a federalist/separatist divide. Coincident with the development of Francophone political power in the province in the 1960s was the essential question of that generation: would Quebec Francophones’ political/social/economic power be exercised within Canada or as an independent country?
The issue was fought out during the course of two highly divisive referendums. The most recent, in 1995, rejected by less than 1 percent of those voting the path that would have led to an independent Quebec. Arguably, the difference in the result was the dynamic efforts of a dedicated Quebec federalist, “Captain Canada” Jean Charest. Despite losing this referendum, the then-ruling PQ was re-elected in 1998; however, with fewer popular votes than the Quebec Liberals, now led by Charest. Frustrated with intraparty squabbling, the PQ’s iconic leader (Lucien Bouchard) resigned to be succeeded by his competent deputy, Bernard Landry. But reflecting a degree of intellectual fatigue and a history of rotating parties after two elections, the PQ was defeated in 2003 by Charest’s Liberals. At this juncture, the ADQ, headed by then-32-year-old Mario Dumont, won a handful of seats and during the campaign generated some interest primarily among middle class professionals tired of being over taxed for mediocre services.
The Liberals Bungle Their Mandate.
Charest came to power benefiting from electoral fatigue with the PQ and promising both to reduce taxes substantially and to improve health care services. Instead of building on these opportunities, he stumbled through several years of social/political missteps just short of direct scandal, but leaving observers shaking their heads with “why did he do that?” type of questions. And he neither reduced taxes nor improved health services—at least not to the level of his campaign promises. Consequently, the Charest Liberals were decidedly unpopular: at the time of the election call approximately 60 percent of the electorate was dissatisfied with the government’s performance.
Thus, one might ask, why—with a five year mandate—did Charest decide to call an election now?
— Because the Opposition Looked in Even Worse Shape. Following its 2003 election defeat, the PQ was at loose ends. Its generation-long struggle for independence was faltering, and the leadership that came of age in the 1960s inspired by that dream was frequently regarded as past its “best before” date. It appeared as if this was the appropriate time to select a next generation of leadership, no less devoted to an independent Quebec but appearing less like your grandfathers’.
The PQ ultimate choice was Andre Boisclair—dynamic, articulate, urbane, and well regarded by youth and Montreal-oriented Quebeckers. On the negative side, he was an open homosexual, an admitted cocaine user, relatively inexperienced in provincial politics, and without a university degree. When he assumed the leadership in December 2005, Charest appeared done to a crisp and the PQ was poised to win a majority. Instead, PQ polling strength fell steadily throughout 2006—at least partly associated with Boisclair’s metrosexual personality and political missteps (such as appearing in a TV takeoff of Brokeback Mountain depicting Prime Minister Harper and President Bush as homosexual lovers).
—And All Concerned Discounted Mario Dumont and the ADQ. Dumont, at 36, appears at times to be the oldest young man in Canadian politics. Once head of the Young Liberals (and a U.S. leader grantee), he broke with the Liberals in 1994 and won election as an individual to the National Assembly. Subsequently, he was regarded as the nice young man who every parent would like as a son-in-law. And, indeed, he followed idiosyncratic policies: although university educated, he stayed close to his local roots and didn’t move to Montreal; he married and had three children, remaining unmarred by personal scandal. Slowly, he positioned himself toward the then-nonexistent center-right of Quebec politics: traditional family values; reduced taxes; reduced government services; more support for private enterprise and private health care. Although supporting Quebec independence in the 1995 referendum, he subsequently opposed another referendum, more recently stressing the need for Quebec “autonomy”—which he never defined (other than leaving the impression that whatever powers and authority Ottawa yielded, more would be demanded).
Nevertheless, he hardly appeared to be a threat to either the Liberals or the PQ. In previous elections, the ADQ had surges of popularity in the polls; surges that essentially were “parking” spots for voters who had not decided which of the major parties to support. In 2003 he appeared to have caught the lightening; however, the electorate then turned elsewhere. Following the 2003 election, its star candidates had been defeated; subsequently the ADQ raised virtually no funds and Dumont never really engaged in the relentless, endlessly exhausting organization/organization/organization effort necessary to transform ideas into a viable political organization. In 2007 there was no ADQ; “Team Mario” was Mario and a gaggle of semi-unknowns filling out the slots to provide an ADQ candidate in every riding.
Charest and the Liberals opened as front-runners anticipating victory. Charest ignored his unfilled campaign promises and focused on the reality of an improved provincial economy, claiming credit for Ottawa’s concessions to Quebec nationalism— concessions such as accepting Quebec as a “nation” and permitting it separate representation in UNESCO. He also anticipated a federal budget that would move to redress the “federal-provincial fiscal imbalance” in financial assets with substantially increased money for Quebec, a budget that was to be released a week before the election.
Personally, Charest with a reputation as one of the better campaigners in modern Canadian history was in a new position: defending a record rather than attacking one. He was curiously flat and lacked the passion of his previous campaigns. In his turn, Boisclair demonstrated lack of experience in running a major campaign; fumbled over whether/when he would call a sovereignty referendum if victorious. Many Pequistes did no more than the minimum in campaigning and outside Montreal Boisclair’s persona was not enthusiastically received by more conservative Francophones.
Consequently, Dumont benefited. Francophones, both Pequistes and Liberal, now had an alternative. They were tired of the devils they knew, and Dumont could not be demonized. Moreover, he had no major disadvantages other than inexperience in governance—a shortcoming that doesn’t show when you are not governing; until then it is an abstraction. Moreover, Dumont initially benefited in a short campaign by the Liberal and PQ belief that his rise in the polls was temporary and a repeat of his transient surge in the 2003 campaign. Hence, Charest and Boisclair focused on attacking each other, in effect giving Dumont a free ride while anticipating that his polling support would evaporate. Although polls were suggesting a three-way split in the electorate, Quebec had avoided a minority government since 1878—in effect forever so far as current politics were concerned.
It was only after the sole debate in the campaign on 13 March that the reality of “Super Mario” was fully appreciated, and by then it was too late to recover for either the PQ or the Liberals. During the debate, Dumont was poised and articulate; he produced the only surprise—a previously undisclosed government document suggesting that a vehicular overpass that collapsed and killed a motorist was recognized as needing repair. Dumont was able to delay projecting the costs of his campaign proposals until the federal budget was released (less than a week before the election) when campaign platforms were less relevant.
The much-anticipated federal budget indeed, delivered additional billions to Quebec; however, Charest did not benefit to the extent predicted. In a move that smacked of desperation, he immediately committed $700 million of it to tax reduction, in effect using federal funds implicitly provided to improve social services as a tax break. Even among the politically jaundiced Quebec electorate, the move looked more than usually cynical.
The Minority Government. The array of Liberals (48); ADQ (41); PQ (36) leaves a much-chastened Jean Charest as Quebec’s prime minister. Indeed, the Liberals had their lowest share of the popular vote ever and Charest barely survived in his “fortress” riding in Sherbrooke, trailing in the vote much of election night. Although Quebec has not had a minority government since 1878, the federal government in Ottawa is a minority government, and other provinces have operated effectively with minority governments. The challenges of a minority government have energized some politicians—and befuddled others. Charest will benefit from the inexperience of his Official Opposition ADQ opponents. Almost none of them have ever been in government. They will have no incentive to defeat the government immediately, needing to prove themselves to the Quebec electorate as an acceptable alternative; raise money for a future campaign; and scour the landscape for a team of prospective “star” candidates to contend in the next election. They are in the antechamber for winning the next election, but it is still a huge step to reach center stage.
For the PQ the defeat was catastrophic. They had the lowest percent of the vote since 1973—and have now declined in three consecutive elections. Boisclair was a high-risk; high-gain choice as leader; the “risk” has prevailed. The PQ has not been charitable to its losing leaders; it has jettisoned defeated prime ministers with aplomb and failure has not been accorded a second opportunity. It would appear as if Boisclair would be replaced sooner rather than later. The PQ faces a massive rebuilding effort to recover relevance; the prospect of an independent Quebec has receded. Quebeckers will be asking whether the “autonomy” hypothesized by Dumont/ADQ is a distinction without a difference so far as the PQ espousal of “sovereignty” is concerned.
The Federal Government in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Harper certainly would have preferred a majority Liberal Party victory, having invested considerable effort in working with Charest and directing federal budget spending to his support. However, the outcome is far from poor for Harper’s Conservatives. Both the Liberal provincial government and the ADQ are opposed to another referendum; both Charest and Dumont are willing to work with Harper and have personally congenial relations with him.
As the time approaches for another federal election, Harper’s polls flirt with a Conservative majority. If one is called for the 2007 spring/summer, the results of the Quebec election are encouraging. Currently, the Conservatives have 10 of Quebec’s 75 federal seats, but parties that can be regarded as allies (the Liberals and ADQ) control the provincial government. More important, the separatist PQ and their federal allies, the Bloc Quebecois, can only be disconcerted, if not disconsolate, over the defeat and its presumed predictive nature for continued Quebec federalist commitment.
While the outcome does not guarantee that Harper will call a federal election, it adds to the positive conditions now existing for the Conservatives. While there are no assurances that Liberal/ADQ votes will transfer to federal conservatives, Harper has worked hard to transform his 2006 “first date” with Quebeckers into a more extended relationship. As well as increased federal financial assistance and nods toward Quebec nationalism, he has moved the Conservatives past their reflexive resistance to gay marriage and made them “greener” in environmental policies beloved by Quebeckers.
And for the United States?
One U.S. objective in our bilateral relations remains Quebec-Canadian stability. In this regard, it does not really matter which party is governing in Ottawa or what other points of discord or congruence exist in our relationship. The election reduces the likelihood that there will be another Quebec referendum in the near future. And for the United States, this is a good thing.
David T. Jones frequent publishes articles in American Diplomacy. Since retirement from the U. S. Foreign Service, he has written extensively over the years for Canadian and U. S. publications.