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The Aftermath Of Québec’s Election

October 9, 2018

The first half of the Québec provincial election campaign was dominated by scandals over individual candidates, putting a shadow over the different electoral commitments made by each party. The second half of the campaign was eclipsed by controversial statements from party leaders. Phillipe Couillard, the incumbent premier and leader of the Liberal Party, claimed that a family could be fed on $75 a week. The head of the surging right-wing Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault, could not explain the citizenship process in Canada, despite immigration being a key plank of his party’s platform. One of the leaders of the left-wing Québec Solidaire said the party was resolutely Marxist. Finally, the chief of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois angrily attacked Québec Solidaire, their chief rival on the left, during a televised debate.

The election’s conclusion on October 1st was swift and unequivocal: Quebecers wanted change and, the Coalition Avenir Québec best exemplified it. François Legault, an ex-Parti Québécois minister and founder of Air Transat, will govern the province for the next four years with a strong majority in the 125-seat legislature. The right-wing party is a composite of various elements from the Parti Québécois, federal Conservatives and Liberals. In winning, they appear to have upended the federalist-sovereignist divide that has dominated Québec politics since the 1970s by not advocating for sovereignty but rather supporting greater autonomy for the province.

The Liberal Party, who led Québec for the past 15 years (minus an 18-month interruption) becomes the Official Opposition after recording the worst electoral result in their history. It’s a similar script for the once-powerful Parti Québécois, who finished fourth behind the left-wing Québec Solidaire and lost official status in the National Assembly.

The question of sovereignty was not part of this election campaign, and so it appears federalist voters did not feel obliged to cast their vote with the Liberal Party, resulting in many of its strongholds falling to the CAQ. The same can be said for the Parti Québécois, who shed scores of their once-reliable voters to the avowedly socialist and sovereigntist Québec Solidaire.

This Québec election followed the script of many elections over the past two years that have seen centrist or moderate options lose out to more ideologically rigid choices. It appears voters worldwide overwhelmingly want systemic change and parties that advocate for bold policies. In fact, the two big winners in this election are the major parties the farthest on the right and the left of the political spectrum.

Voters are increasingly viewing centrist parties as bland and tasteless. They want to see parties advance ideas that they deeply connect with. Being a good manager for the economy is no longer enough for voters. The once-mighty centrist standard bearers – the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois – now have four years to do some self-examination and redefine themselves in hopes of re-winning the favour of the electorate.

However, the big question that remains is what will come to pass in the first months of a CAQ government. They will have the authority to embark on the significant reforms they’ve called for, though they are currently saddled with an inexperienced cabinet, with only three of the party’s MNAs (including Mr. Legault) having previous experience in a minister’s chair. However, the new premier is fortunate to be able to call on a large number of skilled recruits from all walks of life in his party’s swelling ranks to fill key ministerial positions. The government will undoubtedly be economically nationalistic and is widely expected to pursue tax cuts.

The new CAQ government will most likely push for significant changes to provincial economic development policies as they look to entice greater business investment in the province. Most notably, they are looking to change the central mandate of Investissement Québec from a lending institution for businesses to an economic development body actively seeking new markets abroad. However, Mr. Legault has still promised to double the funding available for Investissement Québec to invest in Québec businesses.

Mr. Legault has made it clear that he intends to emulate the major world economies by supporting, through Investissement Québec, companies or projects that can offer well-paying jobs to Quebecers. Notably, he has said enhancing opportunities in the “innovative manufacturing sector” would be a major priority for a CAQ government, as jobs in the field pay roughly 35% more than the provincial average. More broadly, Mr. Legault has said that the CAQ would actively target businesses capable of bringing jobs to the province that pay between $25 to $40 an hour for support.

Inexperience aside, several major challenges loom in the horizon for the new CAQ government. Firstly, it will need to get the provincial bureaucracy to co-operate with its plans. Even though the government has a clear mandate from the electorate, civil servants and some high-ranking bureaucrats will no doubt be resistant to change after only alternating between the Liberal Party and the Parti Québécois for the last 48 years. We can expect personnel movement at the highest levels of the bureaucracy, as well as at the head of provincial Crown corporations, as these roles are almost always politically connected. Another challenge for the CAQ is its campaign commitment to scrap first-past-the-post in favour of a weighted proportional electoral system. While the party won a strong majority (59% of the seats) they fell short from winning the plurality of votes (37%), so a CAQ government might want to reconsider this pledge.

Another challenge for the new government will be the relationship with Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal government. Coming to an agreement between both sides on immigration will be a steep climb. CAQ’s proposal to reduce the number of immigrants to Québec and impose a “value test” on newcomers after three years in the province will likely clash with the more open and globalist views currently presiding in Ottawa. Many of CAQ’s immigration proposals would essentially create two classes of Canadian immigrants and require the approval of the federal government to be implemented and enforced.

It’s a similar issue when it comes to the heated debate over the right of civil servants to wear religious symbols while on the job. The CAQ wants to prohibit individuals from wearing such objects while interacting with the public, even hinting at their intention to use the notwithstanding clause to allow such a ban. Finally, the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) seems to many Quebecers to have been signed at the expense of their own provincial interests (i.e. the supply management concession and no agreement on steel and softwood lumber), while benefiting Ontario and the auto sector.

The CAQ has an ambitious agenda and will face several challenges immediately. However, they have the advantage of commanding a strong majority in the legislature and a decimated opposition across the aisle. Also, the federal government won’t be able to dismiss Québec’s demands outright because the governing Liberals will be entering election mode shortly; they would be wise to heed the evident volatility of the Québec electorate on display during the past two federal votes.

Following on the heels of change elections in British Columbia and Ontario, it seems Québec is the latest province to give Justin Trudeau and his team a major headache.

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.