The Que­bec Elec­tion: A Primer

Policy - - Contents - Gra­ham Fraser

Any­one who has ever cov­ered Que­bec pol­i­tics knows that its byzan­tine loy­al­ties, grudges, af­fil­i­a­tions and hid­den agen­das can take years to de­code. Luck­ily for our readers, vet­eran jour­nal­ist and au­thor of sev­eral books on Que­bec pol­i­tics Gra­ham Fraser, hav­ing re­cently re­tired as fed­eral Of­fi­cial Lan­guages Com­mis­sioner, is free to pro­vide his in­sight and ex­per­tise.

Ev­ery elec­tion tells a story. And ev­ery po­lit­i­cal party strives to con­trol the nar­ra­tive of that story. The Que­bec elec­tion, sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 1, is no ex­cep­tion.

Fif­teen years in power—with the ex­cep­tion of an 18-month in­ter­lude from September 2012 to April 2014 when the Parti Québé­cois was in of­fice—makes the Lib­er­als vul­ner­a­ble to one of the most ef­fec­tive and time­honoured elec­tion mes­sages: Time for a change. On the other hand, the

eco­nomic threats from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion sug­gest an equally proven counter-strat­egy: Safe hands in trou­bled times.

The re­mark­able thing about this elec­tion, how­ever, is that for the first time since 1970, Que­bec in­de­pen­dence will not be on the bal­lot. Premier Philippe Couil­lard has been pre­sid­ing over a suc­cess­ful econ­omy, with record low un­em­ploy­ment—5.4 per cent in June, lower than On­tario at 5.9 per cent, be­low the na­tional av­er­age at 6 per cent, and just above Bri­tish Columbia at 5.2 per cent. This year, 80 per cent of Que­be­cers have ac­cess to a fam­ily physi­cian, com­pared to 70 per cent four years ago. Af­ter years of deficit, the gov­ern­ment bal­anced the books for the fourth con­sec­u­tive year in 2018 and pre­sented plans to re­duce the prov­ince’s debt by $2 bil­lion a year, while low­er­ing taxes for small busi­nesses and home buy­ers.

The Que­bec econ­omy grew by 3 per cent in 2017, the strong­est growth in nearly 20 years, while adding some 225,000 jobs since the Lib­er­als re­gained of­fice in 2014. In terms of eco­nomic growth and man­ag­ing the fis­cal frame­work, the Lib­er­als un­der Couil­lard have a very pos­i­tive nar­ra­tive go­ing into the elec­tion.

Nev­er­the­less, vot­ers are no­to­ri­ously un­grate­ful crea­tures, and tend not to vote on the ba­sis of past achieve­ments but rather choose vi­sions for the fu­ture. More­over, em­bar­rass­ments ac­cu­mu­late over the years, and while ev­ery­one re­mem­bers the scan­dals iden­ti­fied in the Char­bon­neau com­mis­sion in­quiry into cor­rup­tion in the con­struc­tion in­dus­try, peo­ple for­get it was named in 2011, three years be­fore Couil­lard was elected.

Couil­lard has had his own em­bar­rass­ments: awk­ward leg­is­la­tion ban­ning those from giv­ing or re­ceiv­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices from wear­ing re­li­gious garb (patently de­signed to out­flank the op­po­si­tion), sup­port for a unan­i­mous Na­tional As­sem­bly res­o­lu­tion op­pos­ing the use of “Bon­jour/Hi” by staff in stores greet­ing cus­tomers, the bul­ly­ing blus­ter of Health Min­is­ter Gae­tan Bar­rette, the stun­ningly gen­er­ous set­tle­ment with med­i­cal spe­cial­ists and the dead-on-ar­rival re­cep­tion by Justin Trudeau of Couil­lard’s “let’s talk” con­sti­tu­tional pro­posal.

While his gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies have cre­ated the health­i­est gov­ern­ment bal­ance sheets in decades, Couil­lard’s han­dling of the ever-sen­si­tive sub­jects of lan­guage, im­mi­gra­tion and iden­tity have been ei­ther half-hearted or ham-handed.

As a re­sult, there was a fin-de-régime sense at the end of the spring ses­sion of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, as some 19 Lib­eral MNAs—in­clud­ing eight cabi­net min­is­ters—an­nounced they would not be run­ning again.

The elec­tion seems to be François Le­gault’s to lose. A se­ries of polls showed his Coali­tion Avenir Québec in the lead—in early June, Léger found the CAQ at 37 per cent, the Lib­er­als at 28 per cent, the Parti Québé­cois at 19 per cent and Québec Sol­idaire at nine per cent; and in mid-June, CROP showed the CAQ with 39 per cent sup­port, the PLQ with 33 per cent, the PQ trail­ing with 14 per cent, and QS close be­hind with 11 per cent. Le­gault spent the spring an­nounc­ing a num­ber of can­di­dates—some of whom, like for­mer Lib­eral min­is­ter Mar­guerite Blais, were de­signed to min­i­mize the fear that he would be a right-wing pop­ulist.

The Lib­er­als were not giv­ing up hope; Couil­lard proudly an­nounced that the pres­i­dent of the cam­paign will be the high-pro­file en­tre­pre­neur Alexan­dre Taille­fer, and he suc­ceeded in at­tract­ing Mar­wah Rizqy, an im­pres­sive tax ex­pert that the fed­eral Lib­er­als had hoped to re­cruit, to be a can­di­date in the safe Mon­treal seat of Saint-Lau­rent.

The fruits of aus­ter­ity also en­abled the gov­ern­ment to make a se­ries of pre-elec­tion fund­ing an­nounce­ments, rang­ing from $158 mil­lion for sports and re­cre­ation—that breaks into a bun­dle of 231 small an­nounce­ments, like $800,000 for the con­struc­tion of an ath­letic run­ning track in Ma­gog—to $825 mil­lion for re­search and in­no­va­tion, life sci­ences and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence.

While his gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies have cre­ated the health­i­est gov­ern­ment bal­ance sheets in decades, Couil­lard’s han­dling of the ever-sen­si­tive sub­jects of lan­guage, im­mi­gra­tion and iden­tity have been ei­ther half-hearted or ham-handed.

The left-wing Québec Sol­idaire also made a spring an­nounce­ment. Buoyed by the vic­tory of one of the lead­ers of the Prin­temps érable 2012 stu­dent protests, Gabriel NadeauDubois, in a by-elec­tion in 2017, it proudly pre­sented an­other star can­di­date, for­mer La Presse colum­nist Vincent Marissal. Marissal will be run­ning against PQ leader Jean-François Lisée in the East End Mon­treal rid­ing of Rose­mont. How­ever, the launch was marred by re­ports that Marissal had met with mem­bers of Justin Trudeau’s PMO to dis­cuss a pos­si­ble job. He was taken aback by the news, lied about it, and had to apol­o­gize: hardly an ideal way to en­ter pol­i­tics.

The con­text is very dif­fer­ent from re­cent elec­tions. The fact that Que­bec sovereignty will not be a bal­lot ques­tion is not un­re­lated to the fact that a turn­ing point in the 2014 cam­paign was when me­dia mag­nate and star PQ can­di­date Pierre Karl Péladeau pumped his fist as he called ‘‘to make Que­bec a coun­try’’, as leader Pauline Marois stood be­hind him smil­ing and lead­ing the ap­plause. From that defin­ing mo­ment, sup­port for the PQ im­me­di­ately be­gan to drop.

Marois was de­feated, and Péladeau’s lead­er­ship did not sur­vive the breakup of his mar­riage to Que­bec en­ter­tain­ment star Julie Sny­der. Lisée, the Machi­avel­lian long-time PQ strate­gist now lead­ing the party into his first elec­tion, has promised that, if elected, there will not be a ref­er­en­dum in the sub­se­quent man­date.

This, of course, was the prom­ise that split the party in 1984 when René Lévesque made the same com­mit­ment—re­sult­ing in one-third of his cabi­net slam­ming the door. This time, the de­part­ing dean of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, François Gen­dron, a mem­ber of the Na­tional As­sem­bly since 1976, vented his frus­tra­tion at the party’s de­ci­sion not to pro­mote its rai­son d’être and em­pha­siz­ing in­stead the na­tion­al­ist dis­con­tent over im­mi­gra­tion and iden­tity. Ac­cord­ing to the polls, this has not helped move the PQ up from third place.

Nor has Lisée’s at­tempt to over­come his lack of per­sonal pop­u­lar­ity by nam­ing Véronique Hivon as his deputy leader, and tour­ing the prov­ince with her over the sum­mer in a minibus with the slo­gan “Un État fort au ser­vice des gens” (a strong state serv­ing the peo­ple)—and Hivon’s im­age along­side his on the side of the bus, as if they were run­ning for pres­i­dent and vice-pres­i­dent.

And so, who is François Le­gault, and why is his party lead­ing in the polls?

Le­gault em­pha­sizes that he is a busi­ness­man, and makes this a cen­tral part of his ap­peal. In­deed, af­ter train­ing and work­ing as an ac­coun­tant, he founded Air Transat, leav­ing the com­pany in 1997 af­ter a quar­rel with one of his part­ners. But he is no new­comer to Que­bec pol­i­tics. First elected for the Parti Québé­cois in 1998, he served as min­is­ter of In­dus­try and Com­merce, Ed­u­ca­tion and Health, as well as op­po­si­tion critic for the econ­omy and fi­nance.

He left the PQ in 2009, and cre­ated the CAQ as a con­ser­va­tive, probusi­ness ve­hi­cle that ac­knowl­edged, how­ever awk­wardly, that Que­bec in­de­pen­dence was not about to hap­pen. In 2012, he said he would vote No if there were an­other ref­er­en­dum, but Lib­er­als have al­ways chal­lenged his at­tach­ment to the coun­try, with Couil­lard say­ing acidly that Le­gault “tol­er­ates” Canada.

When asked about his com­mit­ment to Canada in May, Le­gault stum­bled, say­ing “I am very proud to be Québé­cois, and Canada, well, I have rec­on­ciled my­self with Canada, I am com­fort­able with Canada, and I hope that Que­bec does more busi­ness with Canada.” De­spite his busi­ness back­ground, there has al­ways been a harsh na­tion­al­ist streak to Le­gault’s pol­i­tics. At his very first po­lit­i­cal speech, when he was nom­i­nated as a star PQ can­di­date in 1998, he told his rid­ing as­so­ci­a­tion mem­bers that he had been raised in Mon­treal’s West Is­land among the English, “and I hate them as much as you do.”

It was an ugly rev­e­la­tion that I have never for­got­ten.

It is a nasty streak that has emerged in his party’s im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies. Le­gault has claimed that im­mi­grants will have to pass a test in or­der to be able to stay in Que­bec—a prom­ise that would be dif­fi­cult to im­ple­ment and even less likely to sur­vive a Char­ter chal­lenge. As the elec­tion draws closer, he has been soft­en­ing his more ag­gres­sive po­si­tions, adopt­ing what Le Devoir colum­nist Michel David called “un déli­cat re­cen­trage”, soft­en­ing the party’s po­si­tion on Que­bec’s pub­lic child care sys­tem, reach­ing out to teach­ers, and pulling back from his chal­lenge to the unions.

At the same time, the party has is­sued strict or­ders to can­di­dates who are not al­ready Mem­bers of the Na­tional As­sem­bly to keep silent on pol­icy is­sues. Le­gault re­mem­bers all too clearly the gaffes that can grab head­lines and doom pop­ulist par­ties. It is all an ef­fort to move to the cen­tre, to re­as­sure vot­ers who are tired of the Lib­er­als but not an­gry, and con­vince them, as one of his mantras puts it, that “Québec peut faire mieux,” Que­bec can do bet­ter. The el­e­ments for a con­test over the elec­tion nar­ra­tive are in place: a strong econ­omy threat­ened by un­cer­tainty, the fear of im­mi­grants and refugees, the need for a strong state, and a left­wing al­ter­na­tive.

It re­mains to be seen whose story will pre­vail.

Gra­ham Fraser is the au­thor of two na­tional po­lit­i­cal best­sellers, René Lévesque and the Parti Québé­cois in Power, and Play­ing for Keeps: The Mak­ing of the Prime Min­is­ter, 1988, as well as Sorry, I Don’t Speak French. He served as Canada’s Com­mis­sioner of Of­fi­cial Lan­guages from 2006-2016, and is now af­fil­i­ated with the McGill In­sti­tute for the Study of Canada.

De­spite his busi­ness back­ground, there has al­ways been a harsh na­tion­al­ist streak to Le­gault’s pol­i­tics. At his very first po­lit­i­cal speech, when he was nom­i­nated as a star PQ can­di­date in 1998, he told his rid­ing as­so­ci­a­tion mem­bers that he had been raised in Mon­treal’s West Is­land among the English, ’and I hate them as much as you do.‘

IPol­i­tics, Matthew Ush­er­wood photo

Que­bec Premier Philippe Couil­lard has a strong record on the econ­omy bat­tling a mood for change among Que­bec vot­ers.

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