National Column: Surprising takeaways from Quebec’s vote

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by Chantal Hebert

To fully measure the electoral earthquake that left Quebec’s once-dominant parties in shambles on Monday, consider that 84 of the 125 members of the new national assembly ran under the banner of parties that did not even exist a bit more than a decade ago, let alone at the time of the 1995 referendum.

That’s just one startling takeaway from the latest big shift in Quebec’s tectonic plates. Here are some others.

There is a new federalist sheriff in town. One of the striking features of Francois Legault’s incoming Coalition Avenir Quebec government is that he owes his victory almost exclusively to francophone voters. A significant number of them had backed Philippe Couillard’s Liberals four years ago.

Notwithstanding Legault’s past sovereigntist credentials, he is beholden for his majority mandate to federalist supporters.

In less than a decade, Quebec voters have crushed the two parties that together made up the political arm of the sovereignty movement. As of Mondayís vote, the Parti Quebecois holds one fewer seat in the national assembly than the Bloc Quebecois in the House of Commons.

After this rout, the PQ’s time in the political major leagues may be behind it. The party has not aged well. It has poisoned its own well with its secularism charter. But the left-wing Quebec Solidaire is still more a movement than a serious contender for government.

The next four years will tell whether the two sovereigntist factions in the national assembly can overcome quasi-irreconcilable ideological differences to craft a common political vehicle for sovereignty. If and when that happens, baby boomers will no longer be in the driver’s seat.

In the last federal election, millennial voters were instrumental in Justin Trudeau securing a majority.

On Monday, in Quebec, that younger cohort helped Quebec Solidaire more than triple its seats from three to 10 and beat the PQ for third place. In the cold light of morning though, the shine of that breakthrough may pale somewhat in the face of the reality that QS will spend the next four years in the national assembly in the shadow of a right-leaning CAQ majority.

Mondayís decisive defeat may be the best thing that could have happened to the Quebec Liberals. This is a party whose intellectual energies have been depleted by a decade and a half in power. The outgoing premier never managed to tell Quebecers why he wanted a second mandate except to keep his governmentís budget surplus out of the hands of his rivals.

Still, the party whose helm Couillard is expected to soon relinquish is in good enough shape to potentially re-emerge as a formidable contender for government in four years.

The Conservative war on carbon pricing will go on without Quebec. Minutes after the networks projected the CAQ victory, Legault was inundated with good wishes from a variety of provincial and federal Conservative venues.

But over the next four years, a CAQ government is more likely to polish up its environmental credentials – as Brian Mulroney did when he was prime minister – than consider abandoning Quebec’s cap-and-trade system. In the last stretch of the campaign, the CAQ feared its lack of an environmental platform would cost it if not the election, at least its coveted majority.

From Legaultís determination to override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, if need be, to impose a secular dress code on public sector employees such as teachers, judges and police officers, to the CAQ’s controversial plan to oust immigrants who fail a French fluency test after three years, there will not be a lack of irritants between Quebec and Ottawa.

Still, it may be in Legault and Trudeau’s respective interests to find ways to work around those irritants. Part of the bargain the CAQ leader made with Quebecers on his way to this week’s victory is an implicit commitment to work in good faith within a federalist framework. In the eye of many voters, his rookie government is on probation. At the same time, Quebec is central to the prime minister’s upcoming reelection bid.

Quebec is now the second province after B.C. to have electoral reform on its government’s to-do agenda. Three of the four parties that will make up the national assembly – including the CAQ – have pledged to introduce a proportional voting system in time for the next Quebec vote. On Tuesday, Legault reiterated his intention to introduce the relevant legislation within his first year in office.

Finally, this is the third time in six years that Quebecers changed their provincial government. In Quebec, a premier used to be virtually guaranteed a second term. That – at least at the provincial level – is fast becoming an exception.

Twitter: @ChantalHbert
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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