In a normal world, today’s election call would represent Jean Charest’s last few desperate weeks in office. Were this any other place in the country save for Quebec, he would be like Bob Rae in 1993 or, more appropriately, Paul Martin in 2006, wherein voters are so fed up with the status quo of scandal and political cynicism that they engage in what an editor of mine once called “the very natural tendency to throw the bums out.” And good Lord, have the governing Liberals learned a thing or seven about scandal and cynicism in their decade in power.
Over the last last six years, the government has dragged the province through scandal after scandal, from a cabinet minister (Tony Tomassi) handing out lucrative daycare licences and accepting a gas card from a prolific Liberal donor—who somehow gained a concealed weapons permit in what is arguably the most gun-shy province in the country after meeting with the public security minister (Jacques Dupuis). Or the other cabinet minister (Line Beauchamp) having a well-known member of the mafia (and Liberal donor) show up at a Liberal fundraising cocktail where she was the guest of honour. There’s the allegations from another former cabinet minister (Marc Bellemare), who said the Premier asked him to acquiese to the demands of a Liberal fundraiser named Franco Fava, who wanted certain people appointed as judges.
And while Charest was cleared of any wrongdoing by the subsequent commission he himself called, the voting public has clearly been less eager to forgive. The Premier’s poll numbers have been dismally, perpetually low, thanks most recently to allegations of widespread corruption within the province’s construction industry—the major players of which, oddly enough, happen to be major donors to the Quebec Liberal Party. He has flip-flopped on calling an inquiry into the industry, as he flip-flopped on a raft of dossiers throughout his tenure, leading many Quebecers to believe the Liberals govern not by principle, but by what they can get away with. And Quebecers have responded in kind: between February 2009 and June 2012, the Liberal’s disapproval rating averaged a whopping 72 per cent, according to a string of Léger Marketing polls. People are obviously mad as hell at the government.
But will they do anything about it? There’s strong evidence they won’t.
A lot has been made of Charest’s ability to punch his way from oblivion and back into power. This is often attributed to his deft political mind and quick-change campaigning chops that somehow suspend voters’ collective dismay just long enough to vote for him. And sure, that’s part of it, but Charest’s success in the province where a significant portion of the population view him as they might bad breath and nosebleeds speaks to a greater malaise within Quebec politics. If he gets reelected, and there is a good chance he will, Charest will have done so thanks in large part to Quebec’s atrophied political climate.
For just over 40 years Quebec’s two main parties, the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, have been doing a pas de deux around the national question. The Liberals, while not exactly waving the Maple Leaf, are resoundingly federalist; the PQ is anything but. And while this black/white, for-or-against model has been fascinating from a journalistic point of view, it has made it so that anyone wanting an end to, say, a decade of mostly unpopular leadership must also endorse the separation of Quebec from Canada, which they simply can’t bring themselves to do. So we’re stuck. As I wrote in 2010, “On one side we have federalists, whose perpetual goal of ‘saving the country’ has brought an equally enduring sense of self-entitlement amongst many federalist politicians. On the other the sovereignists, who purposefully stymie Canada’s political machinery if only to show to what extent the whole mess doesn’t work.”
For the Liberals, as Jacques Duchesneau recently noted, this has meant taking in the lion’s share of political donations from individuals in the construction industry—the very industry that stands to benefit from the province’s plan to spend $37.7 billion on the “modernization, repair and preservation of public infrastructures.” Meanwhile, the PQ’s modus operandi is simply to demand more and more powers from the federal government, and it doesn’t really matter if it says yes or no. “I don’t see how we can lose,” PQ MNA Bernard Drainville told the Globe’s Dan Leblanc this week. “Quebec wins, it becomes stronger. If Quebec is rebuffed, the demonstration is made that there is a limit to our ability to progress in this country.”
The other side of Drainville’s pithy scorched earth equation, of course, is that it simply refuses to catch fire. Simply put, PQ leader Pauline Marois hasn’t benefitted from Jean Charest’s perpetual unpopularity. Indeed, Charest has a five-point lead over Marois in a recent Léger Marketing poll. Today’s Léger poll marks one of the few times that the PQ has overtaken the Liberals, and it’s a two-point lead that is close to if not within the margin of error.
At least part of Marois’s uphill battle is due to Charest’s economic leadership; no less an authority than presumptive PQ candidate Jean-François Lisée has said Quebec under Charest has weathered the economic crisis better than the rest of Canada. (I’d link to this, but L’Actualité has killed off his blog.) It might also have to do with Marois’s own waffling on issues such as tuition fee hike (once upon a time she was for the hike before wholeheartedly taking up the student cause earlier this year, only to drop-it-like-it’s-hot in mid-June) and general inability to connect with the electorate. It might also be common sense. I suspect that many Quebecers who might otherwise vote PQ will take a look at the party’s game plan and think that maybe perpetual, willful confrontation with the federal government in the midst of a teetering economy isn’t such a boffo idea.
Ah, you say. But what of François Legault of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec? Legault, after all, was meant to put an end to the federalist/sovereignist equation by putting aside the national question for at least 10 years and concentrate instead on economic and education matters. According to today’s Léger poll, the CAQ best incarnates change in Quebec politics—a full 13 points ahead of the PQ. He was to recruit candidates from both camps to work together to pull Quebec out of its debt-induced misery. It’s a nice idea, and it may well work in the future, but already Charest has painted Legault, a former PQ minister, as a crypto-sovereignist whose allegiances to the handful of federalists in his corner are shaky at best. In truth, it doesn’t really matter whether he is or he isn’t a sovereignist; it’s enough that Jean Charest has probably sowed sufficient doubt within the restive ranks of Quebec’s federalist voters to ensure they don’t stray from the Liberal Party’s enduring embrace.
The election of Sept. 4 will be less of a cleansing democratic exercise than yet another plodding battle between entrenched camps. Jean Charest has shoehorned the election date between the apathy-inducing hangover that is Labour Day weekend and the restart of the Charbonneau Commission into Quebec’s construction industry on Sept. 17—all the better to pre-empt any embarrassing headlines about the Liberal Party. He’ll use the student protesters who will undoubtedly follow him as props to remind everyone what they can expect if the PQ is elected. Those student protesters, who would rather be righteous than winning, will be more than happy to oblige. If Charest wins, it’ll be another five years of status quo; if the PQ wins, they’ll be more change than at least half the province ever wanted. Let the good times roll.