The real issue on Quebec voters’ minds

The economy, not the values charter, will decide the next election

Christine Muschi/Reuters

Christine Muschi/Reuters

Barring a sudden rapprochement between Quebec’s forever bickering political parties, the province will head into an election sometime this spring. The stakes will be familiar to any follower of the Quebec political scene for the last 40 or so years: The governing Parti Québécois wants to remove Quebec from Canada, the Liberal Party of Quebec doesn’t. Though support for sovereignty has waxed, but mostly waned, over the years, the issue remains the backdrop to most democratic exercises in the province.

It won’t be the ballot-box question, however—the PQ learned long ago that its raison d’être is, ironically enough, an electoral non-starter. Instead, PQ strategists would like the election to centre on the so-called Quebec values charter, the party’s initiative to remove “conspicuous” religious articles from the lapels, necks and heads of its public service employees.

It’s easy to see why. Since the introduction by way of a strategic media leak in late August, both support for the PQ and Premier Pauline Marois has increased roughly 10 percentage points, according to poll aggregator threehundredeight.com. It has consolidated support in the overwhelmingly white, francophone regions outside of Montreal and Quebec City, and all but erased memories of the PQ’s decidedly shaky start following the 2012 election. And it is a worthy surrogate to the issue of sovereignty itself.

The charter has also thoroughly flummoxed the opposition Liberals, who, under new Leader Philippe Couillard, seemed unsure of exactly how to react to the highly divisive legislation. “The charter is working [for the PQ],” a senior Liberal source told Maclean’s recently. Another Liberal source said the party’s MNAs in rural ridings, where support for the charter is highest, are particularly worried.

Yet Liberal strategists and many political pundits alike doubt the charter issue can sustain a month-long election campaign. If there is a cautionary tale about the perils of pitting urban and rural Quebecers against one another, Marois need look no further than her former foil, Jean Charest. In 2012, the former Liberal premier went into the election campaign railing against Quebec’s student movement, which for months had clogged the streets of Montreal in protest against proposed tuition hikes. “A vote for the PQ is a vote for the street,” Charest said, alluding to the PQ’s support of the protests.

Like the PQ’s charter, Charest’s gambit solidified Liberal support outside of Montreal, where the nightly tear-gas-drenched street demonstrations offended rural Quebec’s deeply conservative sensibilities. Yet the election narrative quickly turned from student protests to Charest’s Achilles heel of corruption within the province’s construction and engineering sectors. The student protests were an afterthought by the campaign’s end.

Marois’s Achilles heel is the economy. Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, still regarded as a near-deity by PQ rank and file, recently published a column outlining Quebec’s looming demographic shock and dwindling productivity. Long the embodiment of the PQ’s proud nationalism and the backbone of its economic policy, Parizeau is apparently pessimistic on both fronts. He pilloried the PQ’s charter project last fall; economically, the province “will have to choose between catastrophe and apocalypse,” he wrote in the Le Journal de Montréal. “For the first time in 30 years, I am worried about Quebec’s economic future.”

Marois’s government can hardly be blamed for all of Quebec’s economic woes. Half a century ago, Quebecers decided en masse to have far fewer children; as a result, today the province has the highest percentage of people aged 65 and over in the country beyond the Atlantic provinces, according to Statistics Canada data. Quebec ranks seventh out of Canada’s 10 provinces in per capita GDP, according to a recent study from Montreal’s HEC business school.

Recent employment figures will be fodder for the opposition. Between January 2013 and January 2014, full-time employment decreased by two per cent in Quebec, according to Statistics Canada. Part-time employment, often a last resort for many job seekers, increased by 10 per cent during the same period. Quebec’s morose employment outlook is perhaps why Marois has made a flurry of economic announcements, including a $450-million investment in a new cement factory in the Gaspé region, and a $115-million pledge to search out oil resources on Anticosti Island in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

If there is a twist in Quebec’s two-party pas de deux, it is the handful of seats held by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the right-of-centre party led by former Péquiste minister François Legault. The CAQ currently holds the balance of power in Quebec’s National Assembly, thanks in large part to its seats in the Quebec City region. Legault, a one-time media darling, has largely fallen out of Quebecers’ favour. The most recent CROP poll has the CAQ at 13 per cent. It has sparked rumblings, mostly on Quebec City’s many radio talk shows, of an “anybody but Pauline” campaign, which would see CAQ voters shift their allegiance to the Liberals, if only to prevent a split vote in the PQ’s favour. “The next election will be determined in Quebec City,” says Sylvain Bouchard, a popular radio host in Quebec City. “Unlike the rest of the province, it’s a three-way race here. If the Liberals and the CAQ split the vote, the PQ is on its way to a majority.” CAQ voters are typically conservative, susceptible to both the PQ’s charter project and cold economic fact. In the Quebec City region, they are also very loyal to their long-serving MNAs. They are tempting targets for both the PQ and the Liberals. Win them over, and you go a long way to winning the election.

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