by Chantal Hebert
It is hard enough to be an opposition leader without starting out with knives sticking out of one’s back. But that is the fate that awaits the next leader of the Parti Quebecois, whoever he or she might be.
The winner – to be announced Friday night on the heels of an all-members vote – will inherit a fractured party, short on new blood and rife with personal and policy divisions.
Far from reconciling the various factions that make up what is left of the PQ coalition, the leadership campaign has exacerbated differences on referendum strategy and highlighted divisions on the party’s approach to the accommodation of religious minorities.
This week’s vote is not expected to resolve those issues. On the contrary, it could lead to more showdowns and possibly a party schism on the road to a general Quebec election scheduled for 2018.
Former provincial minister Martine Ouellet made the holding of a referendum on Quebec’s independence at the first opportunity the mantra of her campaign.
She is facing long odds in this week’s vote. Most PQ members can do the math and see that it adds up to a glaring deficit of support for sovereignty. But she is not about to take no for an answer.
Should she lose her leadership bid, Ouellet vows to continue the fight to ensure that a referendum is in the party’s 2018 election platform.
By all indications, the leadership vote boils down to a closer-than-expected contest between two other former PQ ministers, Jean-FranÁois LisÈe and Alexandre Cloutier. They hold irreconcilable views on the accommodation of religious minorities.
Over the last stretch of the campaign, LisÈe has advocated a softer version of the PQ’s controversial secularism charter and suggested, among other measures, a ban on the wearing of burkas and niqabs in public.
Cloutier is determined to not revisit that particular battlefield. He believes the charter episode has cut off the party not only from more recent Quebecers but also from younger voters.
The numbers tend to support his case. The accommodation debate has negative traction among those aged 18 to 34 but relatively strong legs among older voters. The latter happen to be disproportionally represented within the PQ.
The leadership campaign has done little to re-energize the party. Together, the candidates recruited 12,000 new members but 17,000 existing ones declined to renew their membership. The average age of the PQ base hovers around 60 years old. This will be the sixth changing of the guard since Jacques Parizeau resigned the day after the 1995 referendum.
Over that period, the party’s drive to make the province independent has become increasingly divorced from the mainstream concerns of voters.
A recent CBC-Angus Reid Institute poll found that 75 per cent of Quebecers do not expect the province to secede from Canada. Two-thirds feel the sovereignty debate has played itself out.
Essentially, the PQ has just spent six months playing on its most divisive weaknesses to the detriment of its social-democratic strengths.
When all is said and done, its best hope of returning to government would be to convince the scores of progressive voters – many of them federalists – who are turned off by the austerity policies of premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government, to coalesce behind the party.
But since the last referendum, sovereigntist sympathizers have been more likely to cross the divide to support progressive policies – as they did in the case of Jack Layton’s NDP in 2011 or, more recently, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – than the reverse. And someone who voted for one or the other of these federal leaders is unlikely to be attracted to variations on the defunct secularism charter.
If one had to use just one word to sum up the PQ campaign, it would be acrimonious.
Just this week Ouellet accused her rivals of undermining the sovereignty project by refusing to commit to a referendum in the next PQ mandate.
Cloutier received hate mails for taking his distance from charter-style identity politics. At one of the debates, he was booed for pointing out that Quebec did not have the constitutional right to ban English from its court system.
There are lessons in the corrosive unfolding of this exercise for the fractious federal Conservatives. It is one thing to drop the gloves to drive home wedge issues in the heat of a leadership campaign, and another to live with the consequences on the morning after the battle.
Copyright: 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services