Experts Attend Panel Discussion on the Future of Quebec Politics

Courtesy of Creative Commons

In response to the recent Québec general election, Dr. Jean-François Daoust, McGill Professor of Political Science Éric Bélanger, and Paul Wells of Maclean’s Magazine held a panel discussion on October 5 in association with the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship to analyze the election results and discuss the future of Québec politics.

On October 1, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) won a  majority government in a historic victory against the incumbent Liberals. Headed by leader and now Premier-elect François Legault, the centre-right party ran on a controversial platform. Legault’s campaign promises included: decentralization of healthcare, tax cuts, government-sponsored preschool programs, and the abolishment of school boards. Legault also declared his intention to use the constitutional Notwithstanding Clause to ban public servants from wearing religious symbols, such as the hijab.

Moderated by Professor Graham Fraser, Wells began by discussing “the futility of campaigning,” drawing comparisons between this year’s general elections in Québec and Ontario, in which incumbent provincial Liberal parties (led by Philippe Couillard and Kathleen Wynne, respectively) were both unseated by conservative parties.  “We like to think, because campaigns are the most dramatic moments in politics, that how you campaign makes a big difference in the outcome,” Wells said, “and yet, Couillard did almost everything I would have counselled Wynne to do, and his result was almost as bad as hers.”

According to Wells, both Wynne and Couillard faced many challenges to reelection, including “a legacy of corruption, disappointment, and austerity” in their respective parties. In contrast to Wynne, Couillard ran an extremely modest campaign, focusing on small-scale promises to make the lives of Québécois easier, such as refurbishing elementary schools. This strategy was meant to demonstrate that, in Wells’ words, “only Liberals understood the government.”

From the beginning, Legault had been ahead in the polls, and the results did not change significantly throughout the campaign period. “It left me wondering whether the result would have been different if people had just voted on the first day of the campaign,” Wells remarked.

Next, Daoust addressed the inaccurate election polls, many of which were “well below the margin of error,” arguing that despite this inaccuracy, these polls are “crucial for democracy.” Daoust, a post-doctoral student, had researched the effect of election surveys on voter choice in this year’s election.  From this, he concluded that, “We cannot claim that the polls had an impact in changing people’s vote choice.”

Tension from the Anglophone community… could be intensified by the fact that there are few, if any, MNAs from the CAQ that would identify as an Anglophone.

Arguing that Montréal is now “quite isolated” due to a low level of government representation, Daoust also addressed the impact of the election on the island of Montréal and the wider Anglophone community in Québec. Whereas Montréal has generally been well-represented at a government level since 1976, now, out of 74 Members of the National Assembly (MNAs) from the CAQ, only two come from Montréal.

Daoust said, “Tension from the Anglophone community… could be intensified by the fact that there are few, if any, MNAs from the CAQ that would identify as an Anglophone.” Furthermore, according to Daoust, some of the CAQ’s proposed policies, such as the ban of school board elections, could be “very unpopular within the Anglophone community.” Even the Francophones within Montréal, Daoust suggested, may be disappointed with the new government’s policies. “It is not in the CAQ’s interest to invest massively in Montréal.”

Later, Bélanger addressed the question: “What happened?” Although for the first time in 30 years the issue of Québec sovereignty did not appear on the ballot, Bélanger remarked, “The national question is more than just the issue of: ‘Should Québec be independent or not?’” Proposing that the success of the CAQ may have been partially influenced by the removal of sovereignty from the ballot, Bélanger said, “The CAQ became an option that even liberal nationalists could feel comfortable with. Even though the polarization [over sovereignty] is not there anymore, that means that federalist liberals don’t feel as compelled to turn out and vote to support their party.”

Additionally, Bélanger focused on the use of nationalism in Legault’s discourse and campaigning, stating:  “It involved issues of identity and national interest: the emphasis on the CAQ on identity and diversity, and the potential threat of diversity to Québecois identity.”

Still, Bélanger theorized, the CAQ’s future is uncertain due to its stance as a brand-new party. “The CAQ is a coalition. The question remains, will it remain a coalition over the next several years?”

Only time will tell whether or not the CAQ will be able to follow through on all its promises. However, this year’s election was certainly historic, and may change the political landscape throughout the province for years to come.

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