by Chantal Hebert
Justin Trudeau’s Liberals added the Quebec seat of Lac-Saint-Jean to their ranks on Monday for the same reason Stephen Harper did in a byelection a decade ago. In both instances, a plurality of Lac-Saint-Jean voters wanted one of their own at the federal government table. And so they returned the riding to the Liberal fold after a 33-year absence.
Lac-Saint-Jean used to be a Bloc Quebecois stronghold. Lucien Bouchard held it for as long as he was in the federal arena and then ran provincially under the Parti QuÈbÈcois banner in the same region. If the BQ were even going to come back to a position of pre-eminence in Quebec, this is one of the first ridings it would normally win back.
But on Monday, the party – despite the support of a strong Parti QuÈbÈcois local organization and a viable candidate – received less than one in four votes, up only marginally from its last election finish of 18 per cent.
That would suggest that Quebecers – even in the province’s nationalist heartland – are mostly done with voting for a permanent federal opposition party.
The Conservatives and the New Democrats could hardly have hoped for better byelection timing than Monday’s. The ruling Liberals literally spent the campaign tripping over their shoelaces on and off Parliament Hill.
The small business tax reform brouhaha; the controversy over Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s less than arm’s-length disposal of his personal wealth; the spectacle of Heritage Minister Melanie Joly falling flat on her face on the much-watched Tout le monde en parle talk show over her deal with Netflix, all provided fodder for the opposition parties to exploit on the hustings.
Polls show widespread concern among Quebecers over the imminent legalization of marijuana. The
Conservatives played hard on those fears. The New Democrats used a visit to the riding by their new leader, Jagmeet Singh, to highlight their continued willingness to play by made-in-Quebec referendum rules.
Trudeau landed in the riding last week on the day after the national assembly adopted the controversial law that prescribes provincial and municipal services be dispensed and received with one’s face uncovered. During his visit, the prime minister was dogged by questions as to whether he would fight Quebec in court over Bill 62. He eventually left the door open for his government to do so.
Based on Monday’s outcome, voters did not hold that against his party. So far, being consistently offside with what pollsters purport to be a Quebec consensus on religious wear has not hurt Trudeau in his home province.
Back in 2015, his opposition to the proposed Conservative ban on niqabs at citizenship ceremonies had not stood in the way of the Liberals winning a majority of Quebec seats.
The religious accommodation issue may have a lot of traction in the polls, but the ballot box payoff of state-enforced secularism remains elusive. (As an aside, on Tuesday Quebec Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee walked back much of her talk about forcing individuals – whether they wear sunglasses or face-covering Muslim-veils – to remove them to use a vast array of public services. In her latest take on her own bill, people would – at least in the case of public transit or local libraries – have to uncover their faces for identification purposes only.)
It would be tempting to sum up the Lac-Saint-Jean results as a failed introductory test for the rookie leaders of the Bloc Quebecois, the Conservative party and the NDP. But the opposition weaknesses the byelection exposed were already in place on the night of the last general election.
In 2015, only a favourable division of the Quebec vote accounted for the seat gains of the BQ and the Harper-led Conservatives. The NDP has been in decline since its massive Quebec breakthrough in 2011. That decline has been accelerated by the decision to oust Thomas Mulcair from the leadership.
By way of consolation for Singh, the party under one of his leadership rivals would not have fared much better than it did Monday.
Andrew Scheer lost the Lac-Saint-Jean seat, but the Conservatives’ main concern should be the poor performance of the New Democrats. Their support dropped 16 points to 12 per cent on Monday.
Shave a few percentage points off the NDP across the board in Quebec and 20 more seats are within the reach of the Trudeau Liberals in 2019 – leaving the other three parties to divvy up electoral crumbs in Canada’s second-largest province.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer.
Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services