National Column: Lac-St-Jean by-election a litmus test for Liberals

by Chantal Hebert

For a mid-mandate reality check on the federal electoral dynamics, look no further than the battle that is shaping up in the riding of Lac-St-Jean.

A date has not yet been set for a by-election to replace former Conservative minister Denis Lebel. He resigned in June after having served as deputy leader over the party’s leadership campaign. The riding is already registering a higher-than-normal volume of political traffic.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid Lac-St-Jean a visit in July. This week, it was the site of the summer gathering of the government’s Quebec caucus. On Thursday, a handful of provincial and federal ministers were on hand to unveil a plan to fund high-speed internet in the region, north of Quebec City.

Not to be outdone, the Conservatives’ Quebec MPs will also be travelling to the riding for their pre-sessional caucus, albeit without a pocketbook in hand.

In the last election, the Liberals ran third, 10 points behind the NDP and 15 points behind the Conservatives in Lac-St-Jean. They barely beat the Bloc QuÈbÈcois for fourth place. On paper, this is not the kind of riding where a governing party would set itself up for a test. Nor does this rural seat fit the urban profile usually associated with prime Liberal territory.

Except that since they took office, the Liberals have built a daunting lead on their rivals in Quebec. They actually achieved that with a minimum of heavy lifting. The byelection will be an opportunity to check whether the party’s strong showing in the polls is real and, in the best-case scenario for Trudeau, to strike a blow at the morale of the opposition parties. This will be the first Quebec electoral test for the new leaders of the Conservative party and the Bloc QuÈbÈcois. Depending on the timing of the vote, the NDP could have selected Thomas Mulcair’s successor by then. In that case, his or her honeymoon could be short-lived.

Lac-St-Jean resisted the 2011 orange wave. The New Democrats did place second with 28 per cent of the vote to Lebel’s 33 per cent in 2015, but since then they have lost a significant amount of ground in Quebec voting intentions.

The last time the federal Liberals held the riding was back in 1980 at the time of Pierre Trudeau’s last campaign. Over the 35-year Liberal crossing of the Quebec desert that followed the 1982 patriation of the Constitution, Lac-St-Jean favoured the Conservatives under Brian Mulroney as well as for most of the Stephen Harper era. It was a Bloc Quebecois fortress for the duration of the Chretien/Martin
decade.

Indeed, the last time the riding was on the national radar goes back almost 30 years to June 1988 and a by-election called by Mulroney to get Lucien Bouchard in the House of Commons.

The stakes were high. The Tories were in the fourth year of their mandate. The free-trade election was on the horizon. Bouchard was meant to be Mulroney’s star standard-bearer in Quebec. The Tories won the by-election, but the riding stayed with Bouchard when he left the Tories to create the Bloc a few years later.

These days, one would be hard-pressed to find much evidence of the glory days of the BQ in Lac-St-Jean. Martine Ouellet, the party’s latest leader, would face long odds if she relinquished her seat in the National Assembly to run in the byelection.

Provincially, the Parti Quebecois is running behind Premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberals and the Coalition Avenir Quebec. PQ leader Jean-FranÁois LisÈe does not have coattails that a Bloc candidate can hope to ride to a strong showing in Lac-St-Jean.

Lebel was Harper’s Quebec lieutenant and, probably, his most popular minister. It was that popularity that allowed him to survive the orange wave and the subsequent Conservative defeat. The riding’s voters miss him more than they have ever missed Harper. If Andrew Scheer’s candidate does not do well this fall, the rookie Conservative leader should not take it too personally.

A win for the Liberals in Lac-St-Jean would say little about their standing in the rest of the country. Quebec’s federal climate remains distinctively different. But looking to the 2019 election, the province offers Trudeau his best opportunities for gains. Logically, the second half of the mandate should see the Liberals devote more energy to the prime minister’s home province.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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