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QUÉBEC 2012: ELECTORATE IN AN ICE CREAM PARLOUR

by David Levy

A conversation with Prof. Marcel Martel, holder of the Avie Bennett Historica-Dominion Institute Chair in Canadian History, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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The Montréal Review, September 2012

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Pauline Marois and Gilles Duceppe at the XVIe congrès national du Parti Québécois (2011). Photo: David Dinelle

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David Levy: The New York Times said the 2012 Québec election result represented an anti-Jean Charest vote not a pro PQ vote.true?

Marcel Martel: It was not a pro PQ vote. We know that more or less 69% of the population voted for a party other than the Liberals. I can't name a single political commentator who was not surprised by the outcome. I did not buy the argument that the Liberals would be destroyed. However, I was quite surprised that they managed to elect fifty members.

DL: The polls were predicting a PQ minority.

MM: On that, the polls were right. but again when you look at the type of minority government the PQ achieved, it's quite weak. It's not a strong minority government. Remember what Jean Charest said on election night, that the polls were unable to capture the mood of the population. Of course Charest lost his own seat and is no longer the premier of Québec but he leaves the Liberals in relatively good shape.

DL: Anticipating an election, in the spring Pauline Marois went out into the streets with a red square pinned to her designer blouse looking for the 18+ votes.did she get many of those votes?

MM: For the moment it is difficult to say.

DL: Your suspicion?

MM: We don't have the data.Think about this: Considering the election campaign in the USA, people are saying that Obama who is running on such a poor record should not expect to be re-elected. But if you look at the American polls you see that it is a very close race. The outcome seems very difficult to predict. Here the Liberals were in power for nine years, public opinion was quite upset with Jean Charest. Then on 4 September the only thing the PQ was able to get was a weak minority government with only 31% of the vote. I think Pauline Marois knows that her mandate is not that strong. Of course she'll never say that in public, but she knows it.Maybe she's happy with the result. Maybe she thinks she can use it to tell the more radical elements in the party that look, the party needs to be careful. In Ontario in the last provincial election in 2011 you had something similar, talk about corruption and the prediction of a majority Conservative government but that didn't happen. Here the decision to increase the tuition fees left the population divided but the PQ was unable to take advantage even though seventy per-cent of the population was unhappy with the Charest government.The election result was quite fascinating. Jean Charest surprised everybody. I followed him during the campaign. He's a good debater and he ran an effective campaign. The fifty elected Liberal MLAs are from every corner of the province. I'm not trying to deny that the Liberals lost the election I'm only saying that it was not a big loss. The PQ won, but it was not a big victory. Coalition Avenir Québec ( CAQ) expected to do better than 19 seats, perhaps become the official opposition. That didn't happen. Pauline Marois did not get what she wanted, which was a majority government. I imagine many Liberals woke up the day after in a good mood.

DL: Do you see any connection between the red square-casserole demonstrations and the election result? The casserole people were very anti-Charest.

MM: Seventy-percent of the population was upset with Charest. We need to keep in mind that in September 2012 the Québec electorate had several options. In 1976 the PQ won the election with only 41% of the popular vote. One of the reasons they managed to get elected was because if you were upset with the Liberals you had only two options: the PQ or Union Nationale. In 2012 if you were upset with the Liberals you had several options - the Green Party, Québec solidaire, the PQ, CAQ, Option Nationale and some others.

DL: Like an ice-cream parlour that offers a range of flavours?

MM: Exactly. If you don't care for chocolate you can find a flavour you like better. If you don't like  Québec solidaire there's the PQ, if you don't like the PQ or Québec solidaire there are others to choose from. The fact that we have a minority government is not the end of the world.

DL: Minority governments tend to be better listeners.

MM: Majorities don't have to consult with the opposition minorities do.

DL: It was my impression that the casserole demonstrations represented a shift in the political energies of Québec to local concerns. This was not an old-time Québec vs Ottawa happening. The relatively few Québec flags in evidence seemed more a reflex action, a kind of nostalgia rather than a deliberate political statement. One heard very few cries of pour un Québec indépendant.

MM: I totally agree. It was a social issue: how do we want to live in this society? Nothing to do with an independent Québec...

DL: To come back to where this conversation began, the PQ seem accidental election winners, winners, let's say by default.

MM: The PQ this time got 31.9% of the popular vote, the Liberals 31.2%. In 1976, the PQ was elected with 41%. The party is clearly not as strong as it once was...

DL: How do you see the relation of the 2012 Québec provincial election result to the last federal election. Québec elected 58 NDPers, the Bloc was virtually wiped out. The NDP has always seemed to us here in Québec as a collection of prairie boy scouts. Was it the personality of le bon Jack... or something else?

MM: Well, this has been mentioned. Maybe it was an anti-Bloc Québecois vote. Some people said this was a sign that the left in Québec is very strong. But look what happened on September 4th. Let's assume support for the PQ comes from the left, what does that tell us about the left in Québec? Right now the main challenge for the PQ is to govern in such a way that they would be rewarded with a majority government in the next election. The challenge for CAQ is to demonstrate they are ready to form the next government or the official opposition. In the case of the Liberals they need to make sure that they choose a leader who will inspire not only the party but Quebecers at large. Every party is facing important challenges.

DL: It used to be that the same people who voted for René Lévesque provincially voted for Pierre Trudeau federally.

MM: It is funny but this has never been studied.

DL: Why do you think that is? It is an obvious topic.

MM: It seems to me that what we should do is look at the percentage of the electorate that voted. Often those who voted for the PQ said they never bothered to vote at the federal level. The other explanation is that the Québec electorate would always support a French speaking candidate. It could be that Quebecers didn't want to put all their eggs in the same basket. Maybe what happened in 2011was that Quebecers didn't want to vote for Mr. Harper but they didn't want to vote for Mr. Duceppe either so they decided to vote for Jack Layton. It was more than le bon Jack. Apparently, Thomas Mulcair has remained a very popular leader in Québec.

DL: Pauline Marois has now joined other female Canadian political leaders. Eva Aariak in Nunavut, Kathy Dunderdale in Newfoundland, Christy Clark in B C, Alison Redford, Alberta. Is Québec in the avant garde or lagging behind?

MM: The first female premier in Canada was Rita Johnston who took over from Bill Vander Zalm in British Columbia in 1991. No, we are not in that avant garde. I would say it was about time.

DL: How might one explain the sudden rise of Mario Dumont's ADQ ( Action démocratique du Québec), 41 seats in 2007 and their equally sudden demise, 7 seats a year later? Now gone from the political scene, merged with the CAQ in early 2012.

MM: In 2007, people seemed to want a change and they went for the ADQ. The ADQ elected many inexperienced candidates. Jean Charest's minority meant that time was not on the side of the ADQ. The minority government meant that everyday ADQ members had to do something to make an effective impression and they were unable to.

DL: Can Francois Legault's CAQ hope to do better next time? Will it do worse?... In other words, does CAQ have a future?

MM: Too soon to tell.

DL: Amir Khadir's Québec solidaire added a seat. Is two seats as successful as they will ever be?

MM: In terms of the popular vote their percentage was more or less the same as last time. Their challenge is to grow and for that they need to attract strong candidates, not a concept they like.

DL: Can they attract the red square people?

MM: They should be able to. Québec solidaire supported the red squares from day one.

DL: What policy changes might we expect from Pauline Marois? She has spoken about tougher language legislation. She has said she would cancel the refurbishment of the Gentilly 2 nuclear facility. The word is that it would cost $2 billion to upgrade and it doesn't provide all that much power. On the other hand getting rid of it is no bargain either. The cost estimate is a billion..

MM: Whatever she wants to do she needs to negotiate.

DL: Does the absence of a Liberal party leader give the PQ a legislative advantage?

MM: I think Pauline Marois will make an effort not to provoke. She has tried to reassure everybody. The Liberals will probably not chose a new leader till next winter.

DL: Who looks good?

MM: It is likely that Philippe Couillard will run. I know that Raymond Bachand is interested. They're all waiting to hear from Pierre Moreau. Couillard is the one to watch for the time being.

DL: Is it then very unlikely that Pauline Marois would call for a referendum on independence?

MM: Out of the question.

DL: Will she wait until she has a majority. can she get one?

MM: For the last 12 years every PQ leader has said the same thing: they are waiting for "winning conditions".

DL: How long can we expect the PQ's minority government to last?

MM: Twelve to eighteen months. Then we'll see.

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David Levy is an editor at The Montreal Review and author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage" (Enigma Books, 2011)

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