Sunday, May 15, 2011

Long-run NDP prospects in Quebec

There has been considerable debate about the NDP's longer run prospects in Quebec, the party having acquired a large Quebec caucus on election night. Some see it as the beginning of a period of dominance, while others call it a 'flash in the pan' comparable to the success of the ADQ in the 2007 Quebec provincial election, which was then eclipsed in 2008.

I think we can look to history for some clues about what to expect. As a consequence of the conscription crises in the two world wars, the Liberals dominated federal Quebec politics with one exception from 1917 to 1984. The exception was the Diefenbaker landslide in 1958 when Quebec voted in the PCs so as not to be left out of the new government. Quebec moved strongly away from the Diefenbaker Conservatives in 1962, just as the quiet revolution was getting underway in Quebec. Diefenbaker had done nothing to strengthen the party there, but PC fortunes were also dropping sharply elsewhere in Canada.  In Quebec, however, the breaking of the old Liberal ties did mean that rural, Catholic, conservative Quebec was open to other forces. Social Credit, led by Réal Caouette, the leader of its Quebec wing, won 26 seats in Quebec in 1962 (compared to the Liberal total of 35). That was to be its high point. The following year after losing 6 seats in the 1963 election, the Quebec wing split from national Social Credit to form the Quebec-based Ralliement Créditiste.  As a party rooted in the social and political outlook of the old pre-quiet revolution Quebec, it was doomed in the long run, but managed to hang on to enough rural seats through the sixties and seventies to dent the Liberal monopoly, until Trudeau wiped them out in 1980.

In 1984 the Brian Mulroney Conservatives swept 58 Quebec seats, a number almost identical to the NDP this year. The Conservative victory was built in part on an alliance with Quebec nationalists such as Lucien Bouchard, who drafted a key Mulroney speech in the 1984 campaign. The speech pledged to right the alleged wrong done to Quebec by Pierre Trudeau when he succeeded in completing the 1981 constitutional deal without the support of the Levesque government. The speech was effectively the first step on the road to Meech. However, Mulroney's efforts to produce a constitutional deal would end badly for him.  The unraveling of the Meech Lake Accord in the spring of 1990 led to the founding of the Bloc Québecois by Lucien Bouchard, after he quit the Mulroney cabinet and crossed the floor, and to the 1995 Quebec referendum five years later.

The Bloc was primarily a nationalist party to be sure, but it also reflected the secular, social democratic outlook that had become entrenched in Quebec political culture as a consequence of the quiet revolution and the René Levesque PQ government elected in 1976. The NDP has now inherited the social democratic mantle of the Bloc, so in one sense it actually represents a degree of continuity in Quebec politics. It appears to have been made possible by fatigue in Quebec with the nationalist project and the role of the BQ, the same sensibility that has made the PQ hesitant to commit to another referendum.

A key moment for Jack Layton was a highly successful appearance on the widely viewed Radio Canada television program Tout le Monde en Parle (loosely translated it means "everybody's talking about it"), identified by La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert as the point when the Quebec opinion started to move his way.  This was followed by an effective performance in the Quebec leaders' debate, where Layton articulated views that would resonate with soft nationalists in Quebec.

Layton made another successful appearance this past Sunday. Pressed on how he would defend Quebec interests in the new Parliament by host Guy Lepage, he responded by saying he would introduce a bill to strengthen the role of French in federally regulated industries, winning immediate audience applause. Moments later, he restated his campaign promise to press for action to limit credit card interest rates - to just as much or greater applause.

On Tout le Monde en Parle program Layton was note perfect. As opposition leader he can sympathize with Quebec but everyone knows he cannot restart the constitutional debate.  Moreover, the NDP won support across the linguistic divide, capturing seats on the island of Montreal with large anglophone and allophone populations. It has a new political alliance that calls for a different politics than that offered by the Bloc.

It was Layton's effective demonstration of empathy for a Quebec-centric view that mattered rather than the specifics. There appears to be no appetite for an early revival of the independence project, making much of the NDP's rhetoric moot for the medium term in any case. The obsession of the English media with the Clarity Act and the Constitution misses the point of the political reality in Quebec. If those things mattered a great deal, Quebec would not have moved so decisively away from pro-independence representation in the House of Commons. This is not to say it could not flare up again.  In the longer run if the NDP wins office the issue could be trickier to manage. Despite Layton's regard for Quebec's sensibilities and support for asymmetry, it is a measure of changing times in Quebec that the NDP platform made it clear that an NDP government will be more centralist on health care. Consider this excerpt:
  • We will negotiate a new ten-year health accord with the provinces and territories in 2014. The accord will guarantee a continued strong federal contribution – including the 6 per cent escalator - to Canada’s public health care system – in return for a clear, monitored and enforced commitment to respect the principles of the Canada Health Act and to the integrity and modernization of health care;
  • We will work with provincial and territorial partners to:
    • Promote a clear commitment to the single-payer system;
    • Make progress on primary care;
    • Take appropriate steps to replace fee-for-service delivery;
    • Take first steps to reduce the costs of prescription medicines for Canadians, employers and governments;
    • Extend coverage to out-of-hospital services like home care and long-term care.
In addition, Layton committed to going after private health care clinics:
Campaigning in Quebec, Layton criticized the Harper government and called for the growth of private clinics to stop.
"We believe that the Canada Health Act should be enforced," Layton said. "And we don't see Stephen Harper doing that."
Layton said the health care system was being privatized across the country.
Quebecers seem to have become more favourable to the federal government flexing its muscles on issues like this. This Léger poll from May 2010 reported that 62% supported the idea of federal intervention to block a new health fee being contemplated at the time by the Charest government.

On the face of it the NDP's prospects in Quebec look promising. Quebec has become more diverse politically in the 21st century.  In addition to the Liberals and PQ provincially there is the ADQ, the left wing Quebec Solidaire, and talk of a new centre-right nationalist formation.  Federally, four parties hold Quebec seats.  As recently as 2004, federal representation was restricted to the Liberals and BQ in Quebec. So there should be no surprise there might be room for the NDP.

All this diversity could mean that the NDP might not be as dominant as previous parties were, in the sense of sweeping all or most of Quebec seats in most elections. Their success in 2011 was partly an artifact of first-past-the post. Their 42.6% of the vote was almost a 20 percentage point lead over the Bloc's 23.3%, sufficient to give Layton 79% of the seats. The Conservatives have found a home in parts of rural Quebec; the Liberals will likely continue to be strong among west island Anglos; and there is bound to be at least some continuing support for a harder nationalism, so the Bloc could stage a comeback.

The NDP will change Quebec politics but the province will also re-shape the NDP. It might make the NDP less centralist over time, possibly push it to the left on justice issues, prod it on green issues, etc. Clearly the NDP's prospects are rooted in evolving Quebec realities, and therefore could be a key to forming Canada's first national NDP government.