Monday, November 17, 2008

An opening in Quebec

The Globe has run three interesting opinion pieces on the results from Quebec during the last federal election. Reflecting on the different themes might provide a seam for the Liberals to follow in the attempt to rebuild in Quebec as part of a renewed national presence.

The first, by Jeffery Simpson, identifies the problem both of the major parties have had in Quebec since Meech Lake. As he points out, the Bloc made a death bed comeback when many observers expected this election to finally spell the end of the Bloc. He feels this likely had less to do with the arts cuts and young offenders sentencing alone as it did to a prevailing attitude amongst Quebec voters.

As Mr. Simpson lays out the conundrum for federalist parties:

"Since 1993, the largest number of francophone Quebeckers apparently has wanted no part of federal parties, and therefore of the government or governance of Canada. Canada is no longer a country they wish to participate in governing, but one from which they wish to withdraw cash, like an automated teller machine.

"They want to influence decisions in Ottawa without taking any responsibility for those decisions. They want neither to separate from Canada, nor to govern it. They want, through the Bloc Québécois, a variation of an old and enduring ambition: to be part of Canada, but only sort of, and on their terms, which means some sort of associate status, égal à égal, separate but not fully separate, sovereignty but with association, autonomous but still tied, somewhat in but somewhat out, or, in the metaphor of the brilliant Quebec journalist Jean Paré, parishioners in a church called Canada they seldom attend except for important occasions like Christmas, Easter and maybe marriages. They want to take but not to give. And they always prefer leaders, when given a choice, from Quebec.

It is historical fact, reinforced again this week, that Quebeckers have always voted for a party led by a Quebecker when confronted with a choice between such a party and one led by someone from outside the province."

(Perhaps a reinforcement of the point that replacing Dion represents an act of folly by the Liberals).

Mr. Simpson does a great job of identifying the problem but is, however, unable to offer any definite ways towards resolving this.

Then Tom Flanagan expresses a similar opinion based on the Conservative Party's indignation that Quebecois don't play fair with people who condescend to them. His solution is to decrease the emphasis on pandering to Quebec, not on the basis of principle, but to search out a majority by insulting "ethnic" Canadians.

(As an aside, there is always an undercurrent of resentment amongst Reformer types about having the Bloc in Parliament and any separatist allowed to comment in the national press. Why is this person who has advocated concepts that are essentially the same as sovereignty-association and seeks to institute one party rule given a regular column in the Globe and Mail? Where is the outrage?)

"Indeed, the Quebec relationship has been difficult to manage. The infighting between the Action Démocratique du Québec and provincial Liberal loyalists is a constant irritation, as is the fickle friendship of Quebec Premier Jean Charest. But the biggest problem is the attitude of the many Quebeckers who see Canada in instrumental terms as simply a source of benefits to the province. The Conservatives played to that sentiment in their ad campaigns, trying to convince voters that only they, not the Bloc Québécois, could deliver the goods. It worked in 2006 but not this time.

So the bad news is that the Third Sister is hard to please because she expects more and more. But the good news is that a Fourth Sister has appeared - the ethnic voters Mr. Harper has assiduously courted since early 2005, when he set out to change the Conservatives' white-bread image."


"If they can build on these gains, the Conservatives may win a majority without major new gains in Quebec, particularly as reapportionment will leave Quebec with 75 seats while adding dozens of new seats in Alberta and the suburbs of Vancouver and Toronto. Yet, you can't just kiss the Third Sister goodbye. Any party aspiring to govern Canada needs to have MPs from Quebec in caucus and cabinet. But a bigger breakthrough in Quebec no longer seems like the only way of building a national majority."

But the laid plans of Reform and men, Gang aft agley. As Michael Chong put it:

“New Canadians are as diverse as the population at large,” said Chong, and the party has to continue to broaden its appeal, not through narrow-casting, but by presenting a moderate, diverse political option."

And finally, Lysiane Gagnon points out that, provincially, the ADQ is likely to experience the fate expected for the Bloc federally.

"But Mario Dumont, whose Action Démocratique du Québec is trailing in third place in the polls, was on the lookout for something - anything - that could reignite the flames of identity politics, as he did in the last election when he exploited a series of minor controversial events to launch a campaign against "reasonable accommodation" with religious minorities. The tactic was highly successful, and the fledgling ADQ came very close to forming the government.
But to no avail. His outbursts were greeted with derision. In any case, in his stint as Official Opposition Leader, Mr. Dumont is no longer taken seriously."

Now that the ADQ bubble seems to have burst, the current election campaign is back to the usual pattern: The Quebec Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois are neck and neck, and last year's ADQ voters are returning to one or the other of them. Conventional wisdom has it that most former ADQ votes will go to the Liberals, but the demise of Mr. Dumont's party will also help the PQ in Montreal-area ridings.

As the fading of the Union Nationale was mirrored by the Social Credit Party perhaps the fate of the ADQ can reflect some light on the future of The Bloc. It will take a sophisticated strategy but the more the Conservative Party retreats from their attempts to win over Quebec based on a campaign of cynicism, the more room there is for a federalist plea based on an honest appeal to Quebec's interest in being part of the government.

Perhaps the failure of Mr. Harper's Quebec plan was that his subliminal play to identity politics didn't resonate with voters as much as he thought it would.

The key to rekindling participation in the federal government by voters currently hanging out with the Bloc lies within developing a national program that excites Quebecers enough so that they want to take part in developing it rather than just seeing what they can take from Canada.

Perhaps the Green Shift would have been just that vehicle. We will never know. But such a program is out there. What is needed is a leader to identify it and be a champion for it. If the future leaders of Canada are going to remain a paymaster to the provinces, majority governments and the meaningful participation of Quebec in Canadian political life will remain a distant dream.

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