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First Ontario, Now Quebec?

July 30, 2018

Quebecers are on track to follow the lead of their neighbours to the west this fall.

Voters in Canada’s second-largest province are heading to the polls Oct. 1 to determine the fate of their long-serving Liberal government and unpopular premier.

Much like their Ontario counterparts, the Quebec Liberal Party has held power for the last decade and a half, save for a brief 18-month interregnum of minority Parti Québécois rule. And much like what we saw in the lead-up to the Ontario vote, numerous Quebec Liberal MLAs – including several ministers – have announced they won’t seek re-election in the fall, some would say signaling that the party faithful has resigned itself to defeat. It doesn’t help that Premier Phillipe Couillard routinely posts approval ratings in the low 30s; he finished tied for third last in a national survey of provincial premiers earlier this year, ahead of only New Brunswick’s Brian Gallant and the now-defeated Kathleen Wynne.

Contrary to what happened in Ontario and despite a strong desire amongst Quebecers for a new government, the Liberals remain in a competitive position in most polls, trailing the surging right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) by only a few points. The CAQ, led by former Parti Québécois cabinet minister François Legault, is a centre-right party who has been able to draw support from a heterogeneous coalition of sovereigntists, federalists, and autonomists, and in turn, reoriented Quebec’s decades-old sovereigntist-federalist political division.

The Parti Québécois, which is currently the official opposition, sits third in the polls, registering the lowest levels of support in its history. Its leader, Jean-François Lisée, has seemingly lost his party’s status as the predominant voice in the identity debate to the CAQ, and his promise not to hold a referendum during the first mandate of a Parti Québécois government has disappointed many ardent sovereigntists. For the first time in decades, they will be a negligible presence in the next election.

Despite a strong economy, low unemployment, an improving credit rating and a balanced budget, most Quebecers are dissatisfied with their provincial government. It seems that the ethics controversies inherited from former Liberal Premier Jean Charest continue to haunt Mr. Couillard. Many Quebecers also appear to be cynical of the Liberals’ tendency to govern austerely and then break open the piggy bank come election year.

During the upcoming campaign, the governing Liberals will look to portray themselves as the only party capable of handling the Quebec economy in a time of Trump-induced anxiety. For the rival CAQ, they will focus on their favourite topics: regulating immigration, improving Quebec’s education system and lowering taxes. Support for the party is strongest in predominantly francophone regions, where concerns about immigration are the most potent and the Parti Québécois has seen its popularity plummet.

At this point, no one can offer a reliable prediction of the outcome of Quebec’s election. It’s unknown whether voters will look for experience or opt instead for a change. Also, Mr. Couillard proved himself to be a stronger campaigner than Mr. Legault in the last election, which may help move the needle for the Liberals. So, while a CAQ government seems to be on the horizon, Quebec voters, as evidenced by the 2014 provincial election and 2011 and 2015 federal elections, tend to surprise pollsters and pundits. However, one thing is clear: the next Quebec government will undoubtedly have a center-right bent.

If come October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is facing off with a far more a nationalistic government in Quebec, the biggest point of contention will be on immigration. Much like Ontario’s new Premier Doug Ford, the CAQ has raised concerns with how the federal government is dealing with the “illegal border crisis.” The CAQ has also pledged to introduce a new screening process that would ask newcomers to the province to learn French within three years and pass a “Quebec Values” test in order to remain. If they fail, they would then be expelled from the province.

These prospective new policies would clash with the Trudeau government’s talk of an open and diverse Canada centered on the values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights. As a result, the federal Liberals will have to walk on eggshells as they look to make gains and retain seats in Quebec, which will likely determine whether or not they can hold power come 2019. Because after October 2nd, a lot of those seats could be under the CAQ banner.

Seemingly in response to increasing provincial intransigence, Trudeau named close confidant Dominic LeBlanc his government’s new Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, Northern Affairs, and Internal Trade. It appears it will fall on LeBlanc to persuade the premiers to fall in line with Ottawa’s plans. The October election in Quebec will go a long way to determining how difficult that job will be.

Louis-Charles Roy is a Senior Consultant and Quebec Specialist with Proof Strategies, and was Quebec Advisor to a former Leader of the Official Opposition.