National Column: Are Liberals and the PQ running on empty?

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by Chantal Hebert

This is the time in past election campaigns when the Quebec Liberals would set aside their platform to focus single-mindedly on the Parti Quebecois’ referendum agenda.

Forcing the question of whether voters wanted to risk a return to referendum politics on the ballot did not always result in a Liberal victory but it did make a positive difference for the party each and every time.

Ask Jean Charest. He spent the last stretch of his first campaign as Liberal leader in 1998 hammering away at the prospect of another referendum. That did not win him the election but he did end up beating Lucien Bouchard in the popular vote.

In his last campaign in 2012, a similar message helped Charest avoid a defeat of Wynnesque
proportions. Instead, he came a handful of seats from depriving Pauline Marois of a minority government.

A year and a half later, Quebec’s current premier, Philippe Couillard, led the Liberals back to power by again tapping into the reluctance of a majority of Quebecers to revisit the issue of their political future.

But for the first time in decades, there will not be a federalist blitz between now and Oct. 1.

Thatís turning out to be bad news for both the main longstanding protagonists in the lengthy battle over Quebec’s future.

With sovereignty off the table this time, it is as if the Liberals and the PQ are running on empty. Neither has managed to channel the considerable intellectual energy it used to expend on selling its vision of Quebec’s future into what could be described as a compelling narrative.

Instead, the pause in the so-called national debate has exposed a void at the heart of their campaigns that they have for the most part tried to fill with electoral snack food.

The result has left all but die-hard partisans looking for more.

Many Quebec observers were stunned earlier this week when a Leger poll reported that Quebec
Solidaire – the fourth-place left-wing party in the National Assembly – was eating away at the Coalition Avenir Quebec’s lead.

The two sit at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and their election promises reflect that ideological distance. But beyond the fact that neither has ever formed a government, what they have in common that contrasts with their power-savvy rivals are aspirational platforms.

In different ways, CAQ Leader Francois Legault and his Quebec Solidaire counterpart, Manon Masse, appeal to Quebecers’ ambitions for a better collective future.

In the last federal election, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives railed at Justin Trudeau by calling his platform a “unicorns and rainbows” plan.

But Quebecers have for decades faced an existential political choice when they have gone to the polls to elect their provincial government. They have come to expect leaders to challenge them to dream big dreams rather than woo them with smaller-than-life promises.

On that basis, a plurality of Quebec voters happily bought Trudeau’s alleged unicorns and rainbows in 2015 and would do so again if a federal vote were held this fall.

They succumbed to Jack Layton’s progressive appeal in 2011.

For almost two decades they supported Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe’s bid to give Quebec a distinct voice in Parliament.

Brian Mulroney won them over with his commitment to constitutional reconciliation in 1984 and with his dream of a North American free trade zone four years later.

Time and again at the provincial level, it was the PQ’s social policy ambitions that tempted otherwise federalist voters into overcoming their aversion to a referendum to give the party a shot at government.

In the eighties and nineties, the Liberals would try to compete with the PQ’s vision of an independent Quebec with big ideas of their own. More recently they have been increasingly content to use the promise of peace on the referendum front to make up for a lack of policy imagination.

With a bit more than a week to go to the election, it has become a mug’s game to predict the shape of the post-Oct. 1 National Assembly.

Voter fatigue with the Liberals was rampant at the start of the campaign and if change remains a driving force in the ballot box, the Coalition Avenir Quebec and Quebec Solidaire will have a good election night. For more than a few voters, the ideal outcome of the election would be a non-Liberal minority government.

But if winning comes down to getting the vote out in hand-to-hand combat in a host of closely fought ridings, Couillard and PQ Leader Jean-Francois Lisee have the most boots on the ground.

Regardless of the result, though, the Liberals and the PQ will have work to do to justify an ongoing central place in Quebec’s political conversation.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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