Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Quebec By-elections

The conventional wisdom on the byelection results emerging from yesterday appears to be:

  1. The results were a disaster for Stéphane Dion because of the loss of the Liberal stronghold of Outremont; in particular it will lead to grave doubts about his leadership and it is likely to come under early and severe pressure and he might even lose it before the next election.
  2. The results are great victory for Stephen Harper – the National Post headline read: Tories Take Bloc Fiefdom
  3. The results are major reversal for the Bloc Québecois.

TC’s take is somewhat different.


First, with respect to Outremont, it is a significant loss for Dion but it also reflects enduring Liberal Party weakness in Quebec, perhaps in part some lingering impact of sponsorship, but more significantly a longer term loss of confidence in the Liberals among francophone Quebeckers that followed the 1982 constitutional amendments that were implemented over the opposition of the René Levesque PQ Quebec government. There are many reasons for the Liberal decline but it is an established fact, notwithstanding the party’s first place showing in the 2000 election (a result mostly of the unpopularity of Bouchard’s PQ government of the day).

The prattle about Dion’s leadership will be embarrassing to him in the short term, but largely irrelevant as he will be leading the Liberals in the next election, perhaps as soon as later this fall. That will be his real test. He was arrogant in his selection of candidate, and tone deaf to the on the ground politics that were moving all summer to the NDP. He does need to do something about that.

More importantly, however, the Outremont victory of Thomas Mulcair represents a real achievement on the part of Jack Layton, who has had his leadership largely ignored (or disparaged) by the national pundit class. Quietly but persistently he has been pursuing support in Quebec for the NDP, for example, placing the NDP’s national convention in Quebec City and articulating support for asymmetrical federalism as a means of reconciling the centralist approach of the NDP with the devolutionary aspirations of Quebec. Along with improving his knowledge of French first acquired working summer jobs in the province the effort paid off this week.

Outremont has been called a Liberal chateau fort and that is true if we go back far enough, but it was not true in the last two elections when the Liberals won taking only about 35% of the vote. Outremont, however, is where the NDP had its best Quebec showing in 2004 (14%) and 2006 (17%) so there was a base for a strong candidate to build on.

Mulcair’s victory, which could end up being a one-off win, does have some broader potential; the NDP now has seats in all of Canada’s regions, and is in a position to strengthen its claim to national legitimacy. It could only succeed in becoming a national opposition or government party with Liberal failure, something quite out of its hands. TC thinks the best chance of that happening would be if somehow Michael Ignatieff were to become Liberal leader (presumably following a Liberal loss in the next election).

The Conservatives

The Conservative victory in Roberval isn’t as significant as it might look. Apart from a history of voting for the political right (this used to be Créditiste country), this was the only constituency in the top ten performances of the Conservatives in the last in election in Quebec where the Conservatives did not win. It was a gain for Harper but Conservative support in Quebec in the last election was not all that widespread. What they needed to do was win a seat in a part of Quebec that say, supported the ADQ in the March 2006 provincial election. That would be Ste Hyacinthe-Bagot. However, they did not win, and while much is being made of their popular vote there, the split between the Bloc and the Tory vote is uncannily similar to the result in the same riding in the 1997 election (when the Tories were the Progressive Conservatives). One of the things that struck TC in looking at the numbers overall was the sheer volatility and variability of voting preferences in Quebec. One therefore needs to discount the specific numerical data to a significant extent.

The Bloc

In a way the most interesting result of the night was the collapse of the Bloc vote in Outremont (the Conservative vote also dropped significantly). This alone ensured the defeat of the Liberals even if they had hung on to their 35% vote share. Does it mean that with the waning of nationalist passions, the social democratic appeal of the Bloc is transferable to the NDP? Possibly. It does clearly illustrate that defecting Bloc votes are not going to go just to the Conservatives - a core operating assumption of Ottawa pundits who think the key to a Conservative majority is a collapsing Bloc vote (TC thinks a Conservative majority is only possible through big gains in Ontario along with some in Quebec, an unlikely but not impossible scenario.)

It appears as well that Conservative success in Roberval (where they won handily) was partly an effort on the part of an economically depressed region to get access to the federal pork barrel (there are no doubt fond memories of a certain Mr. Mulroney here). In Ste Hyacinthe the result seems more like the loss of support that would be normal given the departure of a long time popular incumbent. Given the long and enduring history of Quebec nationalism it would be best to be more cautious than the pundit class in writing off the Bloc.


In the end, however, these were by-elections, soon to be yesterday’s news. TC is hard put to see great general trends at work. The Conservatives picked up one more constituency that they might well have won last time. The NDP did make a breakthrough but its broader significance is unclear, and the status quo, more or less, prevailed in Sainte Hyacinthe. And Dion will be the Liberal leader in the next election, notwithstanding the gossip machine on the Rideau.

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