On November 15, 1976, the Parti Québécois became the first sovereignist party in Quebec history to form a government. It was said then that Canada and Quebec would never be the same. Led by the charismatic René Lévesque, the PQ was primarily elected on the promise of providing good government (its campaign slogan was Pour un bon gouvernement). But the new government was also committed to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty within its first mandate. It was the era of étapisme (step-by-step sovereignty) and marked a new realignment of political forces in Quebec. No longer was the sovereignty option just a political movement; it had become a bona fide party of government. It was the day the earth shook in Quebec and its political landscape was forever changed.
From 1976 to 2003, all elections in Quebec took place within the federalist/sovereignist dynamic as the Liberals and the PQ alternated in office (PQ 1976-85, Liberals 1985-94, PQ 1994-2003). In an article published in Policy Options in the spring of 2003 following Jean Charest’s ascension to power, I noted that a political shift was beginning to take place in Quebec, where the federalism/sovereignty split was no longer the deciding factor in choosing a government. I went on to say that Charest’s agenda reminded me more of Jean Lesage’s historic Quiet Revolution agenda of the sixties.
The Charest Liberals had called for a fundamental change in the role and scope of government in 2003, prior- itizing health and education, reducing the tax burden, and promising to make federalism work for Quebec. With the PQ registering at 33 percent its lowest score since 1973, there were grounds for optimism that we were on the cusp of a transformational government.
This was not to be. The first mandate of the Charest gov- ment with many controversies over issues that were more annoying than transforming. The government seemed embattled most of the time, with a level of dissatisfaction as high as 70 percent by the end of the third year of the mandate.
In mid-February of this year, Premier Charest decided that it was time to go to the electorate. This elec- tion call, while risky, still came at an opportune time for the governing Liberals, as PQ leader André Boisclair was being openly challenged by prominent members of his own party. The ADQ, with only five seats in National Assembly, was regarded most- ly as a nuisance factor by Liberal strate- gists. Finally, the Charest Liberals, controversy-prone for most of their mandate, appeared to have gained some solid footing and improved their level of satisfaction with the voters in the last year of their mandate, so that they could reasonably expect a second majority government mandate.
On March 26, and for the first time since 1878, Quebecers decided otherwise and elected a minority gov- ernment. They may have kept the gov- erning Liberals in office but they changed the Loyal Opposition. Mario Dumont’s ADQ passed the PQ at the finish line, increasing its popular vote from 18 percent to 31 percent and obtaining 41 seats in the process. The PQ, René Lévesque’s legacy, was now the third party, with its lowest popular vote score since 1970 at 28 percent. Clearly, this presents the potential for a new political alignment in Quebec.
All the comments and analyses that followed seemed to suggest just such a development as some expressed doubts about resurgence of the PQ in the short term. In a press conference the day after, PQ leader André Boisclair himself conceded that while sovereignty remained desirable, it was not achievable in the short term. What we will see in the months ahead is the tug of war between an aging political class wanting to keep the federalist/sovereignist dynamic alive and a new political leadership reflecting a more practical problem- solving agenda. Some in the federalist camp will speak of an irreversible decline of sovereignty, but the sover- eignists will claim the election was an aberration, just a pause in the action. Others will clearly question whether the PQ is a generational party which has had its time.
The dust is starting to settle on an election result few saw coming. The pollsters seemed strangely out of sync with the electorate. The parties themselves appeared stunned at the results. Conventional wisdom also fell by the wayside as Liberals who were supposed to benefit from a ”œballot box premium” actually obtained 2 percent less than polls showed on the final weekend ”” the first time they have ever been overpolled. Despite pleas to the contrary by Premier Charest, Quebecers did not hesitate to vote for a minority government. Finally, a low turnout of only 71 percent did not, in the end, favour the incumbent govern- ment as was assumed.
As the party leaders and strategists digest the results, it is fair to ask whether the Charest Liberals are just a step away from opposition. Coming in third among French- speaking voters, losing 24 seats from standings at dis- solution and 28 seats from 2003 and registering their lowest popular vote when forming a government, they tempt one to draw such a conclusion. But it would be premature.
Despite the constant voter dissatisfaction with his government during his term, Premier Charest could point to some real achievements. His government managed the public purse so effective- ly that bond rating agencies upped their evaluation to the level of 1976. The economy had the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years as well as the lowest social welfare rolls since 1976. In the area of federal-provincial relations, the progress was notewor- thy. This included establishing the Council of the Federation, representa- tion at UNESCO, a generous health care financial deal with the federal government, recognition of Quebec as a nation, and a substantial transfer of funds to correct the so-called fiscal imbalance. The problem for the Liberals seems to relate more to atti- tude and style rather than to compe- tence. In the end, Liberals did not do the pedagogy on their major reforms and appeared smug and arrogant to large segments of the electorate. They pushed a continuity message in the campaign instead of advancing new ideas and new directions. The words ”œarrogant” and ”œresentment” were fre- quent post-mortem characterizations of the Liberal plight. Can Charest recover from this major setback and someday return to a majority government status?
Some are already tempted to write Charest off or, at best, say he has to turn it around within the first year of the new mandate or there will be a challenge to his leadership. It is too early to write Premier Charest’s political obituary. This politician, arguably one of the most talented of his era, is also one of its most resilient. Underestimating Charest would be perilous for his political opponents as well as any potential challengers. No one in the National Assembly includ- ing his opponents masters the issues and the policies like Charest. It is also fair to say that no one better under- stands the workings of Canada and Quebec. Yet, despite this assessment, business must not go on as usual.
The Liberal Party of Quebec (PLQ) has existed since before Confederation. Its future may not be in jeopardy but the same cannot be said about its hold on power. Throughout its history, it has been a haven for change and progress in all spheres of Quebec society. It has, however, on occasion isolated itself and disconnected from some important segments of the population. In fact, three political parties have been offshoots of the Quebec Liberals (the Union Nationale, the Parti Québécois and the ADQ). We should not forget that the 2007 results show the Liberals significantly losing ground in all the regions of Quebec, including their stronghold of Montreal, where a light turnout of 63 percent in the metropol- itan region reflected apathy even among core Liberal voters.
If it hopes to recover, the PLQ must make a definitive shift from a party of tactics to one of strategy, vision and ideas. Healthy finances and ”œget the vote out” organization are no longer enough. It must become a forum for debate about new ideas and be able to steer a course that is more than being against a sovereignty referendum. Yes, it has to remain federalist, but it must define how it wish- es to play a proactive role in the evolution of the federation. In health care and in education, it cannot only spew recy- cled bureaucratic platitudes. It must embolden its party militants and outside thinkers to think outside the box. Imagine how impressive a party in power would be if the voter saw energy and a recipe for change!
The Parti Québécois is about to undergo a major internal debate. The choice of André Boisclair as leader did not work out as planned. His youth and modern outlook could not hide some important character and judgment flaws such as his use of cocaine during his years as a minister. As a result, he proved unable to connect with the average voter. He seemed aloof and condescending even to his political base. The emphasis on a sovereignty referendum further complicated his appeal to the voters beyond his political base. Put simply, he was the wrong leader at the wrong time proposing an idea the majority of vot- ers did not want. We had come a long way from René Lévesque.
Since March 27, there have been open criticisms about the leader and his failure to keep the base of his party intact. The voters for Quebec Solidaire (far-left sovereignists) and the Green Party are seen by some prominent Péquistes as temporarily lost but recoverable votes. Add to that the ADQ’s sovereignist support, and the PQ feels it will eventually make a comeback. However, it is likely that the militants will soon conclude, if they have not already, that Boisclair is not the leader to recapture the party’s former glory.
This being said, it would be an error to conclude that separation or sovereignty is dead. The PQ may have won only 36 seats but it did come in second in 42 ridings and is second in French-speaking popular vote, far from a complete wipeout. The Liberals themselves came second in only 33 ridings, while Dumont, in addition to winning 41 seats, came second in another 45 ”” a leading political indicator.
The dream of sovereignty lives on and is still in the hearts of many young Quebecers. Actually, Boisclair was the only leader who could give a speech at a CEGEP or university without being heckled. Both the Liberals and the ADQ with its comparatively youthful leader failed to inspire that segment of the electorate. Moreover, one should not forget that the biggest gain in sov- ereignty support has historically occurred when Quebecers felt rejected or threatened by the rest of Canada. While Stephen Harper’s open federalism is generally appreciated in Quebec, one should not conclude that the majority of the youth of Quebec is rushing to convert. Two-thirds of Quebec’s main parties voted against a referendum on sovereignty but all three are opposed to the constitutional status quo.
Enter Mario Dumont. This was his fourth election as leader of the ADQ and it confirmed his progression since 1994. The ADQ was formed shortly after the failure of the Charlottetown Accord when Dumont bolted from the Liberal Party to oppose the Accord along with the PQ and the Bloc Québécois. He repeated this alliance in the 1995 referendum by supporting the ”œYes” side, which narrowly lost to the ”œNo” forces.
His political course since 1995 has moved away from the sovereignty option and coalition. He has rein- forced a regional brand of populism which made significant inroads against both the PQ and the Liberals in the regions. His centre-right proposals and his obsession with paring down the debt have also comforted many in the business community.
While Dumont is no sovereignist in the PQ sense, he is by no means a federalist either. His approach is cleverly labelled ”œautonomism,” which he defines as ”œaffirmation without separation.” This approach has garnered support from sovereignist and federalist disgruntled voters. While it is fair to say that much of his vote is protest-oriented, Dumont has a unique way of connecting with voters simi- lar to that of René Lévesque. His demeanour is calm and reassuring, just like Robert Bourassa’s. Quite a combination!
His detractors draw a different picture. His interventions in the early stages of the reasonable accommodation debate, regarding the clash between certain religious practices and mainstream Quebec secular values, were characterized as demagogic by opponents. Unlike Charest and Boisclair, who were reserved and care- ful not to stoke the fires of xenopho- bia, Dumont seemed more provocative and highly assertive. If anything, this may have been the tipping point for the eventual result on March 26.
What are we to expect from this new opposition leader in the National Assembly? Is he a premier in waiting? Is he ultimately a potential threat to national unity? It is still too early to pre- dict the kind of opposition leader he will be. Clearly, his caucus is inexpe- rienced and will be more difficult to manage than the small caucus of four members. It will be a test and one he must pass, or else the honeymoon will be short-lived and the protest vote will shift back to the old parties. Should he ever attain power, however, the ”œnew” political alignment will become a fact. His centre-right populism coupled with his federal-provincial approach of negotiating directly and solely with the federal gov- ernment will clearly change the dynamic within Canada. Is Canada ready for this?
When one reads Dumont’s platform on relations with the rest of Canada, there is no embracing of Canada the country, just Canada ”œthe privileged partner.” He has never described himself as a Canadian and has never shown much interest in Canadian institutions. While he voted for Stephen Harper in 2006, and much is made of their relationship, Dumont will never lead a Quebec version of the Conservative Party.
Observers such as La Presse chief editorialist André Pratte seem to think Dumont wants to do without a referendum what the PQ wished to do with a winning one. This being said, he is aligned with the traditional approach of Quebec premiers. All Quebec pre- miers are by definition autonomists because they lead the only French- speaking-majority jurisdiction in North America. Defending provincial jurisdictions, asking for more responsibilities and powers, and demanding greater financial resources are considered to be the normal parameters for Quebec premiers. The only caveat is that should a stalemate occur, Dumont has never displayed any federalist reflex throughout his career.
Here, Charest and the Liberals can be constructive. If they choose to make the ADQ a surrogate for the PQ and continue the national unity thrust, they will fail to convince voters to re-elect them a third time. If, on the other hand, they take inspiration from the Quebec Lucid Manifesto, which proposed a blueprint for making changes in how Quebecers govern themselves, how they provide health care services, how they finance post-secondary education and how they eliminate the debt, they may find an occasional ally in Mario Dumont. This manifesto was signed by both federalist and sovereignist luminaries who argued for a new frame of reference for debate in Quebec. Both Charest and Dumont welcomed this thought-provoking document. This in itself would go a long way to change the nature of debate in Quebec and position Quebec for a really new political alignment.
This minority government is not expected to have a long life. However, no one in the National Assembly is hoping for an early elec- tion. Charest must adjust his govern- ment significantly if he hopes to remain as premier, Boisclair desper- ately needs time, and Dumont must prove that he can be a viable alternative next time around.
The ”œreasonable accommodation” issue, which catapulted Dumont and the ADQ to the forefront of the politi- cal fray, is now the object of a commis- sion of inquiry headed by the renowned McGill philosopher Charles Taylor and respected sociologist Gérald Bouchard. The results of this exercise will undoubtedly have an immediate and defining impact on the political spectrum. It is likely that within 24 months, Quebecers will be asked to choose again.
There will be no referen- dum in the short term but there are no unconditional defenders of Canadian federal- ism in the National Assembly dominating the political dis- course. Liberals will have to be more sensitive to nationalist arguments to recapture the support they lost and deal on a case-by-case approach to avoid falling, while the ADQ will try to surf on its new-found momentum and avoid polarizing the debate between separatism and federalism or between the hard right and the left. As for the PQ, it will once again go through the exis- tential melodrama we are so familiar with. But it will remain sovereignist, waiting for the pendulum to swing back in its favour. A new Quebec? Not quite yet, just on the verge of being very different.