Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Center Cannot Hold

Now here's the antidote to the last post's optimism.

Quebec has an election tomorrow, and it's a reeeeaaaaaallly interesting one. That's because there is a third, conservative-ish(!), party running that came literally out of nowhere. It looks likely to win as much as 25% of the available seats, which is pretty impressive for a newcomer.

Actually, this sort of thing isn't all that unusual in Quebec. Pretty much once every 25-30 years politics in Quebec lurch. The old parties collapse, and at least one new one comes to take the place of at least one old one. But it's a little more interesting than usual this time around because (a) it's not really clear which of the other parties is about to implode and (b) it's not really even clear that the ADQ is here to stay yet. We'll see.

Assuming it is, though, then both the Liberals and the Bloc seem equally likely to be shown the door. Trivially, in this particular election, anyway, it's the Liberals. Never mind that the ADQ made the Bloc its target, it's the Liberal vote that seems to be suffering. And that, really, is a trend that predates all this. Quebec has been upset with the Liberals for some time now, thanks (mostly) to the still-not-completely-resolved Sponsorship Scandal. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say, in fact, that Stephen Harper can thank the Sponsorship Scandal plus some Liberal Party infighting for his current job. (It's well known that some of Chretien's old cronies quietly encouraged their voters to vote Conservative in last year's election to spite Paul Martin, who had replaced Chretien as PM and Liberal Party leader the year before.) What this shows is that the damage might be more serious than assumed. That is, even now, with Stephane Dion having replaced Martin as Liberal Leader, Liberal support doesn't seem to be recovering. That's a Very Interesting Thing - for several reasons.

  1. The power center is shifting West? - It's just sort of tradition in Canada that the Liberals win every national election. Eventually, they've been in power too long, and it starts to show (the corruption gets more obvious), and the system self-corrects by giving whatever the Conservative-ish party du jour happens to be a shot. This generally doesn't last very long, though. The Liberals can generally count on Ontario, and so that's most of the election right there. The Atlantic provinces respoond well to federal bribes, so the issue for the Liberals is usually whether or not they have enough votes in Quebec. They don't even have to win the whole province - just enough of it. And so the West tends to get completely ignored - hence Western Alientation. When Stephen Harper came into office last January (carrying EVERY RIDING in Alberta), one of the first things he said was addressed to Western voters: "You said you wanted in, and you are in." The first shot, as it were. So what if Liberal support has been dealt a critical blow in Quebec? Well, then the Liberals are going to start having to look elsewhere for votes - and there's only one direction left to look. Unfortunately for them, the West is solid blue, and they have a lot of making up for history to do.

  2. De facto sovereignty - It would also be kind of interesting if Quebec, rather than manipulating the Liberals as they've done in the past, turned to sending large Bloc contingents to Ottawa to get what they want. That might actually work out better for them if they can continue to manage a position as kingmakers on any federal policy. In that sense, they would have de facto sovereignty, if not de jure - because Ottawa would have to negotiate with them explicitly to get things done. HOWEVER...

  3. The End of Quebec as Major Political Concern? - it seems more likely that this will turn out to be a bad move for Quebec - because the Bloc isn't going to be joining any governing coalitions any time soon. Also, the bar is a lot higher for Quebec Bloc MPs than for Quebec Liberal MPs for no other reason than the Bloc has to stand on its own. The Liberals only have to win a certain number of ridings in Quebec to win national elections. The Bloc, to really make a difference, has to do a sight better than a majority. Quebec may be pricing itself out of the market, so to speak.

Of course, the Bloc is the real target here. And since sovereignty, while not exactly a dead issue, isn't as big a crowd-drawer as it was in the 90s and the 70s, one starts to wonder how much steam the Bloc really has left. Take away their signature issue, and you're left with a party that's essentially just a greener version of the NDP - or, as the standard joke would have it, "the Liberals in a hurry." The longer secession keeps not happening, the more scrutiny the Bloc's day-to-day platform will come under, and the more Quebec may decide that Liberal is left enough.

In short, it's just not clear. What the ADQ represents, really, is that Canada as a whole is changing. It's shifting right - even Quebec. And it's shifting west. These things bode well for Stephen Harper. But not if it's the Bloc that collapses and the Liberals take over for them as the leftist answer to Dumont and the ADQ. I guess the best outcome would be for the ADQ to pick up enough people to convince Quebec that they don't need the Liberals anymore. That would make Quebec even less "Canadian" in some sense than it already is(n't) now. But it would deal a serious blow to the Liberal Party on the national level - and that's just what the doctor ordered. No way to tell what's going to happen, but it should be interesting to watch. Either way, Stephen Harper needs to be thinking hard about those 6 seats he was lucky enough to get in Quebec last time. I wonder if they're still available?

If Stephen Harper ever manages to get a convincing majority, however, all bets are definitely off. He would almost certainly follow through on promises to make Senate Reform a reality, which would change the political landscape of the country radically and permanently.


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