As a party with the singular goal of getting Quebec out of Canada, the Parti Québécois has long been affected by what might be called the Saviour Syndrome. Its leaders have typically been propelled to the helm of the sovereignist party by the promise of being Quebec’s founding president, only to tumble into the maw of party infighting when the dream goes unrealized. Current PQ Leader Pierre Karl Péladeau is fast figuring out just how thankless a job it can be. Barely seven months in, he is contending with a disgruntled caucus, a restive base and underwhelming poll numbers. It promises to be a difficult year ahead.
Péladeau was a saviour sans pareil: as a billionaire businessman leading a traditionally social democratic party, PKP was meant to bring much needed economic credibility to the leftist party. Yet his arrival has apparently alienated many associated with its progressive wing. Among them, say party sources, is former Péquiste minister Martine Ouellet. A longtime PQ member and an MNA since 2010, Ouellet ran against Péladeau for the leadership last May. Péladeau appointed Ouellet as the PQ’s transport and telecommunications critic the following September—an olive branch, of sorts, for his former leadership opponent. Yet Maclean’s has learned that Ouellet has been voicing her frustration with the party to close associates. She has told friends that she is displeased with the PQ’s moribund poll numbers, and its seeming inability to mount a proper opposition to the governing Liberals’ austerity measures. She has said that she thinks things will go badly for Péladeau before the 2018 election—possibly during the PQ convention this fall. (In an email to Maclean’s, Ouellet denied she was disappointed in Péladeau’s leadership, and said the party’s new president, Alain Lupien, has helped revive the party. “It would be erroneous to continue on your tangent,” she said.)
According to the source and another close to the PQ, she and other PQ MNAs have reportedly also bristled against the appointment of Bernard Drainville as parliamentary leader and Pierre Duchesne as Péladeau’s chief of staff. Both men are proponents of the PQ’s “identity” strategy, which saw the party refocus on its white, francophone base as a means to win the 2014 election.
It included Drainville’s proposed Quebec values charter, which would have outlawed “conspicuous” religious symbols from the heads, faces and lapels of Quebec public servants. The identity strategy was ultimately a flop: in the 2014 election the party suffered its worst electoral defeat, in terms of popular support, in its 47-year history.
Péladeau’s appointment of Drainville and Duchesne begat a string of departures from the party, chief among them Stéphane Bédard. First elected in 1998, Bédard was a notably fiery debater whose bursts of indignation were like candy for TV journalists. Bédard resigned shortly after Péladeau demoted him as parliamentary leader.
Péladeau further irked party faithful when he suggested that Quebec may itself be divisible should the province ever separate. Quebec’s indivisibility is an article of faith amongst Péquistes, and was enshrined into law by former premier Lucien Bouchard in 2000. Péladeau later corrected himself, though not before columnist and longtime Péquiste Claude Villeneuve called him a “political ignoramus.”
The internal strife comes at a time of muddied fortunes for the PQ. Though it continues to hold a significant lead amongst francophone voters, the party trails the governing Liberals in most recent polls. This, despite a raft of unpopular cuts to education and an increase in daycare fees, among other austerity measures on the part of Premier Philippe Couillard, in a bid for a zero-deficit budget.
Péladeau will likely continue pushing the case for Quebec independence. One of his main advisers on the subject is former premier Bernard Landry. “Independence is Péladeau’s profound conviction,” Landry says. “He’s a billionaire; he didn’t come to politics because he needed the money, but to make a country.” Whether out of conviction or the need to appease the party base, a PQ leader must always pay significant lip service to the cause. Yet doing so traditionally has a Kryptonite-like effect on the party’s electability amongst the general voting public. This conundrum has felled many PQ leaders before, and its current saviour doesn’t seem to be faring any better.
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