And then a referendum ate them all -

And then a referendum ate them all

Notes on the Quebec election campaign beginning Wednesday


Quebec Premier Pauline Marois (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

Notes on the Quebec election campaign beginning Wednesday:

1. There have been only two minority governments in Quebec’s modern political era (“modern” defined, roughly, as “since Jean Lesage” and therefore, since 1960). Jean Charest had the first in 2007-2008, Pauline Marois has had the second. So we’re in a period where some long-established trends don’t always hold, but I’m going to mention a trend for you anyway: Quebec usually re-elects an incumbent government rather than boot it out after one mandate. Pauline Marois is running her third campaign as PQ leader, having lost one and won one. Against a new party leader, Philippe Couillard, and another whose star has faded, François Legault, she is likely to win.

2. In 2007 the PQ ran on a relatively mild version of its traditional calling card, nationalism, and a now-vanished party, the ADQ, ran on what might politely be termed populist nativism. Together they held Jean Charest’s Liberals to a minority, but if a single party could combine nationalism and nativism, it might box the Liberals in more completely than two could. That’s the calculation Jean-François Lisée made, and first as Marois’s counsellor and then as a rookie MNA and senior cabinet minister, he has encouraged the PQ’s transformation into a party with much of the appeal those two parties had in 2007. The rest of Quebec politics, and especially, the Liberals, have had 8 years to prepare for the play the Marois-Lisée PQ is making, without much success. All elections are unpredictable and Quebec has been surprising in many ways lately, but I’d bet a loonie (though not a penny more) that the PQ wins a majority.

3. I don’t want to be sweepingly dismissive, but I have never found Marois a terribly interesting politician. But give her this: she’s highly malleable. While others of her generation — Jacques Parizeau, Lucien Bouchard, even Bernard Landry — have been publicly highly skeptical of the Charter of Values that has been the PQ government’s most high-profile and controversial policy, Marois has peddled it like a champ. She does not seem burdened by introspection.

4. Will she hold a secession referendum? If I were Lisée, I would tell her this: PQ premiers who didn’t hold referendums are not remembered fondly today. Pierre Marc Johnson, Bouchard, Landry. The two who did are heroes of the movement, even though they lost: René Lévesque and Parizeau. To which group would Marois rather belong?

5. In a referendum, political Canada would be represented by a No committee leader, Couillard, who would have just lost an election; a federal prime minister, Stephen Harper, whose party is far less popular in Quebec than Jean Chrétien’s Liberals ever were; and by a reasonably impressive B team (Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau) whose members cannot conceivably work effectively with one another.

6. In 1995, No committee chairman Daniel Johnson spent a lot of time keeping weird or hard-t0-control voices out of the referendum debate. Chrétien’s interventions were limited. Reform leader Preston Manning and his lieutenant on constitutional issues, Stephen Harper, were formally forbidden from campaigning. Expenses of the Yes and No campaigns were capped at parity. The goal was to ensure the No campaign spoke with one voice.

Those days are gone forever. Social media has collapsed the cost of entry into a political debate to zero. Anyone with a Twitter or Youtube account, from anywhere in Canada or the world, will be able to tweet, blog, post video or otherwise gain entry into a referendum debate. One idiot who wants Quebec kicked out of Confederation will gain far more attention than 100,000 “likes” for Quebec We Love You on Facebook. I get the distinct impression the amount of strategic thought that’s gone into this, among federalists who may be a year from a referendum campaign, is zero.

7. So while any part of this chain of supposition could be flawed or simply overtaken by events, I’m inclined to think we’re heading for turbulence.

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