The not-so-predictable Duchesneau effect

Which way will Quebec voters stampede?

The not-so-predictable Duchesneau effect

Graham Hughes/CP

At the end of June, Jacques Duchesneau, the former Montreal police chief, sat down with William Marsden, a veteran Montreal Gazette reporter. Duchesneau had just wrapped up his testimony as the star witness at the Charbonneau commission, a public inquiry into political corruption in the province’s construction industry. Earlier the Charest government had appointed him to run his own investigation into corruption, then sat on his report until he decided to leak it to the press.

At the commission he said 70 per cent of Quebec party financing comes from illegal sources, and that he’d warned Montreal’s mayor about people on the mayor’s staff. The mayor, Gérald Tremblay, denied everything and demanded Duchesneau name names. “He can go to hell as far as I’m concerned,” Duchesneau told Marsden. “You call him a mayor?”

Then he said he was going to disappear for safety’s sake. “It’s time for me to vanish for security purposes. The family has been hit kind of hard. They are scared.”

Where was he going?

“That’s a secret. Away. I cannot push my luck. [Threats] are part of the game. I knew it.”

Marsden asked whether Duchesneau feared for his life.

“You know, I will not talk officially about it. Yes, there are problems. I think I pushed a lot last week.”

That was six weeks ago. On Sunday, François Legault, the leader of the upstart Coalition Avenir Québec, announced Duchesneau is his party’s candidate in the riding of Sainte- Jérôme, northwest of Montreal. And that if the CAQ forms a government, Duchesneau will be deputy premier.

So apparently Duchesneau no longer needs to lie low.

It is still only the second week of a campaign that will end with the vote on Sept. 4, but the Duchesneau candidacy has upended expectations about how this campaign would go. “Could be a major game changer,” the Canadian Press reported. The Gazette called him a “potential game changer,” while the Globe said he “changes Quebec’s political game.” The Toronto Star allowed that he “could be” a “game changer.” But it took Radio-Canada’s Michel C. Auger to weigh in with the authoritative judgment: “Un ‘game changer,’ comme on dit à Washington.”

Polling firms postponed their weekend polls, preferring to wait until they could properly measure a “Duchesneau effect” that the Quebec City press gallery was, by all appearances, working overtime to generate. Meanwhile, Duchesneau promptly set about doing what he does best, sprinting toward microphones and waving his arms portentously.

Jean Charest’s Plan Nord resource-development scheme is a get-rich-quick scheme for Liberal-connected firms, he told Le Devoir. Which firms? What was his evidence? He couldn’t say. Counsel for the Charbonneau corruption inquiry have “everything in hand,” he assured Le Devoir’s reporter.

But it’s a funny thing. Two days later Duchesneau showed up in the Journal de Montréal insulting the work of the Charbonneau commission counsel: “I had a chance to reveal everything before a commission, with immunity, and they didn’t ask me about anything except some banalities.” Before lunch the commission’s chief prosecutor, Sylvain Lussier, fired back, telling La Presse that much of the evidence Duchesneau gave the commission was claptrap. The ex-cop produced a list of 200 companies his team had investigated without giving any hint about whether the investigations had produced wrongdoings. Separately, he passed along allegations from third parties whom he identified only with nicknames like Tintin or Captain Haddock. “He should have given us names,” Lussier said. “He didn’t.”

Duchesneau paused between wild allegations only long enough to demonstrate the most rudimentary understanding of government. On Monday morning he told an interviewer he would have sole power to name ministers to key departments in a CAQ government, before admitting at lunch that he had basically made that stuff up. Legault, a former PQ cabinet minister who seems like a nice guy but who struggles at the best of times to project the authority of a political leader, had to reassure everyone, and perhaps himself too, that Duchesneau would not in fact be the new party’s de facto leader.

So at least in the early going, this even-higher-stakes-than-usual Quebec election is coming down to an odd question: can the rapturous reports from a press gallery with a weakness for bandwagons propel a new party to victory in its first campaign?

It just might. Pollster Jean-Marc Léger is running a daily tracking poll that asks respondents which leader captured their attention each day. On Aug. 2, Legault was named by 13 per cent of respondents, Charest by 29 per cent. By Aug. 6, Legault (and Duchesneau) had sucked the air out of the room, so the CAQ leader was named by 48 per cent of respondents, compared to 14 per cent for Charest and 14 per cent for Pauline Marois, the Parti Québécois leader.

This bandwagon effect is happening early and may be hard to sustain through to election day, especially if Duchesneau keeps rolling around the CAQ deck like a loose cannon. But it is hardly unfamiliar. Recent Quebec politics has seen other media stampedes that, in some cases, transformed into voter stampedes. The most recent was, of course, the federal election of 2011. At the beginning of the campaign, Jack Layton’s NDP was averaging 17 per cent in voter support in Quebec. On election day they won 30.6 per cent. The other classic case is the 1995 appointment of Lucien Bouchard as “chief negotiator” in the event of Quebec secession, an essentially meaningless gimmick that nonetheless brought the separatists to the brink of victory.

There are cases outside Quebec too, such as the victory of Bob Rae’s NDP in the Ontario election in 1990. But Quebec has recently acquired a reputation for substantial, unpredictable shifts in voter opinion.

What does it all mean? Charest’s fondest hope—that the election could somehow become a referendum on his increases to university tuitions, an issue on which he enjoys some relative popularity—is already dashed. Duchesneau keeps the spotlight on corruption, although the silver lining in that cloud is that Duchesneau really mostly just keeps the spotlight on himself. For Marois, whose PQ led the immediate pre-writ polls, the campaign has suddenly become a daily battle for any kind of coverage at all. She had done an impressive job of restoring momentum to a party that had been rattled by infighting. Now she watches while the ex-cop steals her thunder.

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