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Election Matters… Elections Matter

4 May

Do you remember, just before the recent federal election, when I predicted – on this very blog – the following scenarios?:

* I predicted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would run a plodding, repetitive, bubble-like campaign, highlighted by an almost daily parade of negative news headlines and mini-scandals, in which he would answer almost every question posed to him with a rote warning that the country faced dire consequences unless voters elected a stable, secure, national, majority Conservative government. I wrote that on Election Day, Canadians would give his party exactly what he asked for, thanks mostly to voters in the Greater Toronto area.

* I predicted that NDP Leader Jack Layton, fresh from hip surgery and a bout with cancer, would fire up the imaginations of voters with the sheer force of his personality and with campaign speeches that spoke of the “winds of change”. I foretold that those winds would carry him right into the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, thanks mostly to the province of Quebec, which would elect almost 60 neophyte NDP MPs to the next Parliament – more than half of the NDP’s new caucus, and more seats than they had ever won before.

* I predicted that Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff would run a high-energy but ultimately fruitless campaign that would lead his party to its worst-ever electoral result, that it would be reduced to third party status in the House of Commons for the first time in Canadian history, and that Ignatieff would lose his own Toronto-area seat and resign as leader the morning after the election. In fact, I predicted that the Liberal Party would lose most of the Toronto-area ridings that it held for six election campaigns and almost two decades.

* I predicted that after two decades dominating federal politics in Quebec, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe would run an increasingly desperate campaign that would lead his party into political oblivion, that the Bloc would be reduced to a rump of four seats, lose official party status in the House of Commons and that Duceppe would also lose his own seat and announce the end of his political career on election night. I also noted that the Bloc’s historic defeat would likely come at the hands of a New Democratic Party that had never had more than a single Quebec MP in the House of Commons at any one time, and whose successful candidates would include a 19-year-old university student and an anglophone Ottawa bartender who spent more of the campaign in Las Vegas than in her rural francophone riding.

* Finally, I predicted that – although her party would earn a smaller percentage of the popular vote than it did in the last election, and she would be excluded from the televised leader debates – Green Party Leader Elizabeth May would make history by becoming the first-ever member of that party to win a seat in the House of Commons, that she would unseat a veteran cabinet minister, and that she would be returning to Ottawa as the MP for Saanich – Gulf Islands, British Columbia.

I predicted all of these things. I really did.

You saw that old blog post of mine, didn’t you? I must have lost the link…

If not, you’ll just have to take my word that I saw everything coming all along.

Or maybe you should take note of the short sentence that opened up John Duffy’s 2002 book, “Fights of Our Lives: Elections, Leadership and the Making of Canada”.

“Elections matter,” Duffy wrote.

When the 2011 federal election began, nobody could have foreseen what the results would be, even though many people – myself included – figured the most likely outcome would be roughly the status quo: A Conservative minority government, a Liberal official opposition, a few dozen NDP MPs, the Bloc continuing its hold on most Quebec ridings, and the resumption of what had been almost seven years of volatile minority political wrangling, machinations, and brinkmanship.

What happened instead was the biggest sea change in Canadian federal politics in recent memory. In one night, for better or worse, Canadian voters put Stephen Harper into the history books as one of the most successful and longest-serving Conservative Prime Ministers in history (assuming he serves out his full mandate), gave the NDP an unprecedented influence, probably destroyed the Bloc Quebecois entirely, and put in grave doubt the future of the Liberal Party of Canada – the most successful 20th Century political party in the Western democratic world.

Elections matter indeed.

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Programming Note: Quebec Scene

9 Apr

Just over a year ago, Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals limped out of a provincial election with a narrow minority government, the first in that province since the 19th century.

In the same vote, the Parti Québécois became the third party in Quebec’s National Assembly, and the ADQ party, led by Mario Dumont, won more seats than ever before – almost winning the election – to become Quebec’s Official Opposition.

And for a little while at least, it looked as if Charest’s minority government wouldn’t last too long. By September of last year, they had dropped to 24 per cent in the polls, third place behind the ADQ and the PQ.

Late last month, though, the front-page headline in Montreal’s La Presse read ‘”Charest Revit” – literally, “Charest Lives Again” – as that newspaper’s latest polling had the Quebec Liberal Party back on top of the heap at 34 per cent voting intention, as compared to the PQ’s 30 per cent and the ADQ’s 22 per cent.

Even more encouraging for the Quebec Premier, the poll showed that 61 per cent of Quebec residents were satisfied with his government, the highest level of satisfaction for any government in the province in two decades, and almost double its rating of six months ago.

Quebec has a history of producing popular, charismatic politicians – think Trudeau, Lévesque and Bouchard. But Charest has seldom been thought of in that league. His more remote personality, his previous career in federal politics (he came within 187 votes of becoming Prime Minister of Canada in the 1993 Progressive Conservative Convention, losing to Kim Campbell), and … yes… the fact that his mother was an anglophone, all contributed to the wariness with which francophone Quebec voters approached Charest since his entry into provincial politics one decade ago this month.

So what accounts for his party’s amazing political turnaround in such a short period of time? Some of it certainly stems from the failure of Mario Dumont to appear as a Premier-in-waiting over the past year. And the PQ has been going through its own leadership issues, replacing André Boisclair with Pauline Marois.

Some commentators suggest that Charest has taken some posthumous lessons from one of his predecessors – Robert Bourassa – and become “…a button-down premier who appeals to Quebec’s sense of order, if not its heartstrings…

The Premier’s recent success comes at a time when politics in Quebec seems to be changing. Most dramatically, the PQ recently abandoned its longstanding policy of promising a referendum on sovereignty as soon as possible after an election victory. And on the federal scene, the Bloc Québécois’ decline in popularity and the Conservatives’ growing credibility among Quebec voters had prominent Quebec journalist Chantal Hébert writing about a “full-fledged federalist revival” in the province.

What does that mean for the rest of Canada? Well, according to Hébert, it certainly doesn’t mean the Question of Quebec will cease to be central to politics in this country.

Here’s what she told an audience in New Brunswick last fall, in a speech that was recently broadcast on CBC Radio:

Keeping Quebec in the federation has been the dominating challenge of the second half of the 20th century in Canadian politics. But I would predict that living productively with a Quebec that’s not going anywhere may be one of the more transforming experiences of the first decades of the 21st century. And you may find it sometimes just as hard.

For more on recent developments in Quebec politics, please tune into a televised panel discussion I am producing that will air tonight and be available online later this week.

State of La Nation

9 Nov

Once a month, La Presse – Montreal’s biggest newspaper – sticks a thermometer into the Quebec body politic and publishes a wide-ranging poll by the CROP firm.

Last month’s poll suggested that the September federal by-elections in Quebec were no fluke. It showed the Bloc Québecois and the Conservatives tied for the lead in voting intentions in the province at 31 per cent each. For the Bloc, that’s a drop from 42 per cent in the 2006 election, which was their worst-ever electoral showing. For the Conservatives, it was a gain of six points over the same period.

As L. Ian MacDonald put it:

“…one is 31 per cent on the way up, and the other is 31 per cent on the way down…”

MacDonald also crunched the Liberals’ Quebec numbers (down four points from the election to 17 per cent), and suggested that some of the safe Liberal seats on the West Island of Montreal are now within the Conservatives’ reach (it has been almost 20 years since the Progressive Conservatives last won a seat on the Island of Montreal).

The signs of a possible political realignment in Quebec come at a time when Quebec society seems to be changing. Both the Bloc and PQ are languishing in the polls, suggesting that the status of the sovereignty movement is in flux. Some have also suggested that the debate over reasonable accommodation in the province has revealed a longing for a past era long-thought buried – that of strongman Maurice Duplessis. As Konrad Yakabuski recently wrote in the Globe and Mail:

“…a large number of young Quebeckers – perhaps not a majority, but certainly a strong and politically active minority – see pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec though almost rose-coloured glasses… “To say that everything from that period was dark, that voters were all backwards, I think is a ridiculous interpretation of history,” (Mario) Dumont said on the heels of the March election… His praise for pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec is not based on personal experience. He was born in 1970. He never lived through the church repression, reactionary politics and cultural isolationism that characterized the reign of Maurice Duplessis between 1944 and 1959. This is not to suggest Mr. Dumont is a reactionary or his followers Bible-thumping social conservatives. It simply speaks to a prevailing sense among many young Quebeckers that their society has lost its bearings and that one way to get them back is re-embrace what it has always meant to be a Québécois in the first place : their language, families and memory.”

Along with my colleague Navin Vaswani, I am producing a television program on the topic tonight. Tune in if you get a chance. Details here . The show will begin with an interview with federal Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, whose challenges have been documented previously on this blog. M. Dion will stick around after the interview and participate in a panel discussion on the state of his home province. Hope you can catch it.

Reasonably accommodating?

26 Sep

Less than a year ago, when everyone knew a provincial election was imminent, I asked a well-known Quebec journalist to assess the chances of Mario Dumont’s right-wing Action Démocratique du Québec party.

The journalist told me the ADQ was “fading away” from the political scene – so much so that Dumont had jokingly worn a “Hello, My Name is Mario” badge on his jacket at a recent event in Quebec City.

He predicted Dumont would quit provincial politics following another disappointing electoral showing, and would run as a Conservative Party candidate in the next federal vote.

I hope that journalist didn’t put any money on his prediction.

In fact, when the provincial vote finally did take place in March, anyone who bet on the results almost certainly would have lost their wager.

The first minority government in Quebec since the 19th century?

The Parti Québécois reduced to third-party status in the legislature?

Mario Dumont becoming Leader of the Opposition, only a few seats short of taking power with a group of faceless, experience-less backwoods backbenchers?

Who knew?

Not me. Not you. None of the prominent prognosticating political pundits in the province predicted this possibility.

How did Dumont go from being a political has-been to a Premier-in-waiting?

Probably by owning the so-called “reasonable accommodation” issue, which has come to dominate public affairs in Quebec, and is becoming prominent in the rest of Canada.

It’s not a new issue: Debates over the assimilation of minority groups and the nature of multiculturalism are as old as immigration itself, and bubble under the surface of many other issues in the public sphere.

The debate boiled over earlier this year in Hérouxville, a small, largely homogeneous Quebec town that garnered international headlines by passing a resolution aimed at largely non-existent foreign “new arrivals” to the town. The resolution banned such things as stoning women to death and burning at the stake.

While Premier Jean Charest dismissed Hérouxville as an isolated incident, Dumont took up the cause, positioned himself as the champion of old-stock Quebec values, and rode that position all the way into the opposition leader’s office in Quebec City.

Charest, meanwhile, created a commission to travel the province and look into the reasonable accommodation question (and also – charged Chantal Hébert – to avoid having to take a political stand on the issue)

Led by two academics, Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, the commission is in the middle of public hearings that – according to one account – resemble “a roving road show that has given an open mike to anyone who wants to muse out loud about religion and minorities”.

The reasonable accommodation issue is not limited to provincial politics in Quebec. In the lead-up to last week’s by-elections, federal parties were falling all over each other to attack the Chief Electoral Officer’s decision to allow Muslim women to vote without lifting their veils – a decision based on laws those very same parties wrote.

The Prime Minister – whose party appeals to the same voters in Quebec as Dumont’s – even interrupted an official visit to Australia to blast Elections Canada. His party, of course, subsequently did very well in the two by-elections held in the Quebec heartland.

Of course, this is hardly a Quebec-only issue. There are similar debates all over the democratic world.

In Ontario, the faith-based-school funding debate that is dominating the current provincial election campaign represents another battle over reasonable accommodation. In this case, how far should the education system go to accommodate minority religious groups? Some of the language used by the Ontario Liberals in the campaign – warning against “segregation” and threats to social cohesion – is certainly Dumont-like.

It’s not a debate that will disappear anytime soon. An SES poll released this week shows reasonable accommodation is very much a top-of-mind concern for many Canadians.

Will politicians continue to exploit that concern? You can bet on it.

By the by-elections

18 Sep

For those of you who were keeping score, last night’s Quebec by-election results obviously provided just about the best possible outcome for the NDP and just about the worst for the Liberals.

And speaking of obviously, the Tories had a pretty good night, too – except for their continued electoral irrelevance in Montreal – and the Bloc had a pretty bad one (although they can still turn to one another and wistfully say “we’ll always have Saint-Hyacinthe”)

NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair’s victory in Outremont seemed to come largely by taking votes from the Bloc – not bad for an anglo running in a largely francophone riding (which happens to be right next door to Gilles Duceppe’s riding, it should be noted). The trend for the NDP in Quebec seems to be that once every 17 years, a star anglo candidate will take a francophone riding in a by-election. Keep your eyes open for any riding vacancies in 2024.

It’s worth remembering, though, that Phil Edmonston – the only other Quebec NDP MP in history – only sat in Parliament for three years before quitting politics. His seat was taken by the Bloc the first election after he left, and held by them ever since. Mulcair won’t have very long to consolidate his support before he faces the voters again in a general election.

The Liberals… well… they’re already beating themselves up enough about this…

Also worth noting: Last night was a huge tactical victory for Stephen Harper, who has been known to score a tactical victory or two. He decided to call three by-elections in Quebec only, when there are – in fact – four other vacant seats outside of Quebec, each of which the Liberals could have won.

If, instead of being shut out, last night saw the Liberals retain four seats, the headlines this morning would have been different, and the perception that Stéphane Dion screwed up would have been muted.

UPDATE: Andrew Coyne’s take is that the Bloc suffered a worse blow last night than did the Libs.

UPDATE # 2: Kady O’Malley offers advice to both the votelorn and the vote-happy.

Quebec by-elections: Can’t tell the players without the scorecard

17 Sep

Time was a federal vote in most Quebec ridings would have meant one of three things:

1) A shoo-in for the Bloc Québecois.

2) A shoo-in for the Liberal Party.

or 3) A tight battle between the two of them.

That’s all changed over the last three or four years, to the point where four different parties have a chance to win by-elections in at least one of the three ridings in play today. And there’s a credible chance that a different party will triumph in each riding.

The ridings are listed here.

Some background reading here and here.

And below is a scorecard you can check back on tomorrow to see who outperformed expectations (and may be doing what they can to provoke a federal election over the next while) and who flopped (and will try to keep the minority Parliament going and going and going):

Conservative Party

Best case scenario: Wins in the longtime Bloc strongholds of Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean and Saint-Hyacinthe–Bagot (The former seems quite possible and the latter would be an upset), and a respectable showing (third place, say, above the Bloc) in Outremont. This would tell Stephen Harper his 2006 gains in Quebec weren’t flukes, Afghanistan may not be a ballot-box question in Quebec, and the time may be ripe to try to win a majority government

Worst case scenario: No gains at all – second place in Roberval, distant second in Saint-Hyacinthe and fourth place obscurity in Outremont, which would underline the party’s lack of support on the Island of Montreal and make embarrassingly obvious the reason why unelected-but-wants-to-run-sometime-soon cabinet minister Michael Fortier, who lives in the riding, didn’t throw his hat in the ring this time.

***

Bloc Québecois

Best case scenario: Retain Roberval and Saint-Hyacinthe, and a respectable third-place – or even second-place – finish in Outremont. Such a scenario could inspire Gilles Duceppe to make good on a threat to bring down the government over the Afghanistan war.

Worst case scenario: Shut out of all three seats, losing Roberval and Saint-Hyacinthe to the Tories, finishing below the radar in Outremont, continuing the long, slow decline of the party.

***

New Democratic Party

Best case scenario: A historic win in Outremont, which would become the first-ever seat held by the NDP on the Island of Montreal and the second-ever held in the province of Quebec, and would show that Jack Layton’s native-son status there can win over both star candidates and left-leaning voters.

Worst case scenario: A distant second or third in Outremont, which would throw cold water on any hope for an NDP breakthrough in the province. A very close loss probably wouldn’t be too discouraging, though – when you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose…

***

Liberal Party

Best case scenario: Any signs of life in Roberval and Saint-Hyacinthe, coupled with a convincing win by Stéphane Dion’s handpicked candidate in Outremont would calm some of the party’s nervous nellies worried about the leader’s… well… leadership.

Worst case scenario: Flatlining in both ridings outside of the Island of Montreal and losing the once-impenetrable Liberal bastion of Outremont, after Dion spent considerable political capital and time campaigning there, would most certainly not calm any of the party’s nervous nellies, one of whom said the following to me on the day Dion won the party leadership last year: “This is our Joe Clark moment”. Reports out of Outremont (which many Liberals from outside the riding – most prominently, Ken Dryden and Justin Trudeau – invaded this past weekend to help get out the vote) stress bubbling tensions between Dionistas and Ignatieff… istas? … IggyPopsters? … you know, Liberals who supported the other guy…

So, there’s your scorecard. Clip and save. And have it with you tomorrow when we regroup for the post-mortem.

Quebec Liberals: No Sleep ’til Tuesday

14 Sep

If you’re a Liberal in Quebec, this does not promise to be a relaxing or fun weekend.

Expect more of a chain-smoking, nail-biting, lying-in-bed-sweating-can’t-sleep-too-stressed kind of weekend.

Monday is By-election Night in the Province of Quebec, and the stakes are higher than normal for everyone, but especially for the Liberal Party of Canada and its Quebec-born leader Stéphane Dion.

This morning’s polls (French-language link) in La Presse show Liberals can expect to finish a distant third in Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean and Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, two ridings in which they haven’t been competitive for years.

But the worst news is on the Island of Montreal, the only place left in Quebec – outside of a riding in the Outaouais and one in Laval – where the Liberals actually have any seats. In Outremont – as safe a Liberal riding as still exists in the province – not only is Dion’s handpicked candidate in a neck-and-neck battle with the NDP’s star candidate Thomas Mulcair, but today’s poll shows Mulcair running ahead of Liberal Jocelyn Coulon 38 to 32 per cent.

It is worth pointing out here that in the entire history of the party, the NDP has (briefly) held a total of one seat in Quebec, also won by a star candidate in a by-election.

Chantal Hébert outlines the scope of Monday’s potential disaster for Dion here, and reports that Liberals have been having trouble recruiting campaign workers in the riding. Indeed, I’ve heard that emergency Liberals from outside Quebec will be flocking to Montreal on the weekend for door-knocking and possible smoked-meat-scarfing.

It won’t be an easy weekend either for members of the Quebec Liberal Party, who are meeting amid questions about the political future of party leader Jean Charest.

Charest, premier of a very narrow minority government, is running last in the polls among the three major parties and faces a leadership confidence vote in six months.

The good news for Charest: No one is actively campaigning for his job. Why not? Maybe because all heir-apparent wannabes know their history:

Charest’s Liberals have won two consecutive elections (the last one, barely). It has been more than a half-century since a political party in Quebec won power more than twice in a row. So, the next election may remain Charest’s to lose.

Won’t make this weekend any easier. A couple of coffees with each smoked meat sandwich may help keep you going until Tuesday morning…