Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quebec at the Crossroads (?)

Conservative, NDP victories prove have intriguing implications

Liberals and their supporters all over the country must have felt a twinge of agony yesterday, as they were swept in three Quebec by-elections.

In Roberval-Lac St Jean (formerly a Bloc Quebecois stronghold) Conservative candidate Denis Lebel picked up a shiny, new seat for his party. In Outrement, NDP star candidate Thomas Mulcair won only the second seat the New Democrats have ever held in that province. In the third and final contest, the Bloc Quebecois held on to the riding of St Hyacinthe-Bagot, electing Eve-Mary Thai Thi Lac.

Clearly, the NDP’s victory in Outrement is a key one. Aside from winning its second-ever Quebec seat with Mulcair, a popular former provincial Liberal minster of the environment, the NDP may well be able to translate this victory into real inroads into a province that, as surely as it has often stood between the Conservative party and government, has also stood between the NDP and official opposition status.

Equally profound is the victory of Denis Lebel in a riding that was formerly a BQ stronghold. The Conservative victory in Roberval-Lac St Jean comes at a time when the ridings provincial equivalents (the provincial ridings of Roberval and Lac St Jean) are both held by the Parti Quebecois (held by Denis Trottier and Alexander Cloutier, respectively).

When framed against the recent Quebec provincial election, wherein Mario Dumont’s Action Democratique du Quebec (the closest thing to a Conservative party equivalent in Quebec) supplanted the PQ as the provinces official opposition, it appears that the voting coalition that has supported the Parti Quebecois is splintering.

When one remembers that the Parti Quebecois has traditionally found its support among hard-line separatists, and soft Quebecois nationalists of both conservative and social democratic political bents, it becomes unsurprising that parties like the ADQ, Conservatives and NDP are finding room to gain ground in Quebec.

In the long run, however, any objective attempt at such an analysis has to admit that the Liberals will find similar growth room under such conditions. Just because they didn’t find that room yesterday doesn’t mean they won’t do so in an upcoming election. It’s almost inevitable.

It shouldn’t be assumed that the increasing difficulties of the Parti Quebecois mean separatism is dead in Quebec. That was the mistake that Pierre Trudeau made after the 1980 referendum when Trudeau declared separatism to be dead.

He was wrong. It came back to haunt both Canada and the Liberals, and if we assume separatism has been defeated now, it is guaranteed to do so again.

On that note, these by-elections have also found Stephan Dion in the interesting position of apparently trying too hard to be a leader.“It's my responsibility to win the byelection,” Dion announced in the aftermath. “I take the responsibility for what happened and the responsibility to be sure that next time we'll be stronger.”

While a good many Liberals must be relieved to see Stephane Dion finally accepting responsibility for something (a shame he can’t do so, it should be a little less comforting that he has it, well... wrong.

It wasn’t Stephane Dion’s responsibility to win these by-elections for his party – it was the responsibility of his candidates.

Dion’s insistence that he must be responsible for ensuring the victory of his candidates only underscores the very trait that makes him unpalatable to so many Quebeckers – his great love of centralization, both within the country, and within his party. He could arguably considered unique among Liberal party leaders in that he seems to favour the centralization of responsibility as well as merely power, but that is a point for another time and place.

At the end of the day, the most interesting implication these by-elections will have will be on Quebec’s historical tendency to show a united front in federal elections. Currently, the Bloc Quebecois hold the bulk of Quebec’s parliamentary seats with 50 (as of yesterday the Liberals hold 12, the Conservatives 11, and the NDP hold a single seat, along with one indepenent MP).

If the splintering of the separatist vote continues, it’s apparent that a new party will stand as heir to the distinction of being Quebec’s primary representatives in the House of Commons. It would be foolhardy to count the Liberals out, but with so many Quebeckers having such visceral reactions to Dion, it will be all the more interesting to see where these voters splinter off to. In the wake of the ADQ’s provincial triumph and yesterday’s victory, the Conservatives shouldn’t be ruled entirely out, either. At the same time, the NDP will have a unique resonance with Quebec’s many social democrats.

Canadians may well be witnessing another historical turning point in Quebec. Only time (and further elections) will tell.

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