Thursday, September 27, 2012

Justin Trudeau and the state of the federal Liberals in Quebec

I am grateful to Jonathan Kay of the National Post for his Trudeau story on September 26.  It frames the expectations for Justin Trudeau well.
"It’s fashionable to write off Mr. Trudeau as a lightweight, and his party as a spent force. But recent events in Quebec — specifically, Pauline Marois’ election as premier, and the student strikes that indirectly brought her separatist party to power — suggest there is an avenue for the Liberals, with Mr. Trudeau at the helm, to make themselves relevant again in Canadian politics, and perhaps even make a play for power.

First off, anyone who still dismisses Mr. Trudeau as an untested political dilettante isn’t paying attention. As early as 2006, he was chairing the Liberals’ youth-renewal task force. In 2008, he became an MP — and he did so in the competitive, highly multicultural, hardscrabble east-end Montreal riding of Papineau. In the 2008 election, he fought a hard door-to-door ground war against former BQ vice-president Vivian Barbot, defeating the incumbent by fewer than 1,200 votes. In 2011, he survived the Orange Wave, defeating his NDP challenger by more than 4,000 votes.

In short, he’s gone up against both the separatists, and the left, and won both times. Even if he’s done this using the political rocket juice of name recognition, he’s won the right not to be treated as a pretty-face novice....
But the Liberals do have one remaining advantage. As Conrad Black reminds us, the Liberals ruled Canada for 80 of the 110 years from 1896 onwards. And the reason for this, he argues, is that they were the party (a) that could convince Quebec to stay in Canada; and (b) that could convince the rest of Canada that they could make the sale in Quebec."
Let's start with the 'Liberals ruled Canada for 80 of the 110 years from 1896 onwards'.  They did dominate Canadian politics and there were good reasons for that, including domination in Quebec. However, at the end of that era the Chretien majorities were built on sweeping Ontario not Quebec.

In the first instance Laurier, as the first French-speaking prime minister, commanded loyalty from his fellow citizens in Quebec. That would be reinforced in 1917 by the conscription crisis, which led to long-term francophone distrust of the Conservatives.  However, the reasons for Liberal support among Quebec francophone voters no longer apply.  Indeed the Liberals last won a plurality of francophone votes in Quebec in 1980, some 32 years ago. Antagonism to the 1982 Constitution for allegedly 'excluding' Quebec, plus Meech Lake and sponsorship reduced the Liberals to their lowest point ever among the Quebec francophone electorate in 2011.

How bad is it for the Liberals in Quebec?  Look at the table below which groups Quebec riding results from 2011 into three categories, by far the largest of which is "Most Francophone":

C.P.C Liberal NDP Green Bloc Other Total
Most Francophone (85%+) 18.6% 8.8% 43.7% 2.0% 26.4% 0.5% 100.0%
Intermediate (50% to 85%) 11.0% 18.5% 44.5% 2.2% 22.1% 1.7% 100.0%
Anglo (Less than 50%) 19.8% 33.6% 33.7% 2.7% 9.6% 0.5% 100.0%
Quebec - All voters 16.5% 14.2% 42.9% 2.1% 23.4% 0.9% 100.0%

The Liberal vote among francophone voters is somewhere around 9%.

Let's look closely at Justin Trudeau's own riding of Papineau: the pattern repeats itself there. The red Liberal polls at either end of the riding are predominantly anglo/allo while the more francophone strip in the middle divided itself between the NDP orange and the Bloc blue. See this map of allophones by census tracts in Montreal. While not perfect it gives you the general idea. Look at the tracts just south of Metropolitan Boulevard on either side of Papineau. Indeed the NDP/BQ split of the francophone vote enabled Justin Trudeau to increase his margin (as Kay cites) while simultaneously losing vote share (he received about 41.5 % of the vote in 2008 but just 38.4% in 2011).

This is the situation the Liberals face. They confront a newly successful federalist NDP now led by Thomas Mulcair, a person who has deeper roots in Quebec than Justin. And a complete loss of faith in the Liberal Party by the Quebec francophone electorate, and they have even lost some ground among the anglo/allo electorate.

There were specific, valid reasons why the Liberals did so well in the 20th century that are not present now. What is it that Justin Trudeau brings to francophone Quebec voters that would permit them to reason that he makes a preferable alternative to other parties? There is no obvious answer.

The Liberals still retain a significant measure of support among anglophone/allophone voters. Perhaps Trudeau could expand Liberal support among this demographic but Mulcair too has a history of defending the interests of this community.  It won't be as easy or automatic as many seem to assume to roll back the orange tide.

It continues to be TC's strong impression that the Liberals are just not facing up to the dilemmas that confront them, particularly with respect to Quebec.