In the immortal words of “Ti-René”, everybody take a valium. It would be tempting to write that Monday’s election results were somehow “transformational” in the sense that Laval University’s Vincent Lemieux meant in his famous 1986 essay on “generational parties” on the Quebec scene. In that classic, and very prescient, analysis Lemieux concluded that Quebec’s political history was categorized by “realignments” of parties who defined themselves by their opposition to the governing formulas of the preceding generation. In this group he placed Laurier’s Liberals, Duplessis’ Union Nationale, Lesage’s Liberals and Levesque’s Parti Québecois. He went as far as predicting that the next such phenomenon would not be seen until the turn of the century. Lemieux wrote at the time of Bourassa’s second mandate. The Meech Lake accord had not yet surfaced. And the ADQ did not exist. Yet Lemieux predicted that the next political “vague”, or wave, would be non-nationalistic and non-interventionist. In other words a radical break from the past. Nothing of the sort has yet happened. For to be “transformational”, a party must have a program that is a clear, coherent whole. Or a leader with the courage of a Margaret Thatcher who, upon her election, held up Friedrich Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty” and slammed it on a press table declaring “This is what we believe.” Quebec is still waiting for clarity, coherence and courage.
Perhaps the most that can be said is that after Monday’s Quebec election the motto for the Province should be changed from “Je me souviens” to “Non, je n’ai rien oublié.” Not in the sense of Charles Aznavour’s personal memory of betrayed love, but in the sense of Quebeckers’ collective memory of betrayed hopes. Despite the first minority government since 1878, this election was more a transition than a transformation. What happened was a race to the bottom by mediocre parties whose leaders left no one excited and whose platforms were a muddled re-hash of worn ideas. As with all majority governments this one was the Liberals to lose and they did. Voters cast ballots not for anything that was proposed, but for that which they least opposed. And, no, they forgot nothing.
Most Quebeckers were tired of referendum discussions. André Boisclair didn’t seem to get the memo. He went so far into the fray as to audaciously declare that even with a minority government he would bully ahead with one anyway. His case wasn’t helped any by his ill-advised attempt at obfuscation in calling the planned referendum a “public consultation”. Those who wanted separation saw it as cowardice. Those who didn’t saw it as deceit. In either case Boisclair was hurt even more when one of his star candidates, former CSN President Marc Laviolette, seemed to mimic Jacques Parizeau’s “lobster trap” comment by saying “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as he catches the mouse.” The PQ’s elitist contempt for Quebeckers was not lost on voters.
Dumont actually helped his cause with a “less is more” approach. Even his refusal to engage in the face of Chantal Hébert’s shrill attack on “Tout le monde en parle” won him points. As the Parliamentary Group’s Patrick Gagnon - an ex-MP from the Gaspé - pointed out to me, Dumont understood that for many of the two million viewers - particularly those in the regions - an appearance on television is an invitation into someone’s living room. And guests don’t scream in your living room. Dumont gained ground by building on his image as everyone’s favorite son-in-law. The well-behaved young man who remembers where he comes from and won’t be dragged into the mudslinging of the Montreal intelligentsia.
His views on the one issue on which he led, reasonable accommodation, also reflected the frustrations of the 50% of Quebeckers who live outside the Montreal metropolitan area and who feel that accommodations in the private domain should be no concern of the state; and accommodations in the public domain may have gone too far. As for specifics on policies, Dumont’s reserve let Charest’s troubles speak for themselves and corrode Liberal support.
Looking back on the Liberal record the amount of baggage is astonishing. Failed health and drug care policies; an inability to produce promised tax cuts; expansion of nanny-state regulations; no reduction in the bureaucracy; labour policies that brought over a million demonstrators into the streets; the private school funding debacle and the daycare mess. To the broad public it seemed every file the Liberals touched turned to mush.
Even the one time during the campaign that Charest spoke candidly - on the divisibility of Quebec - he back peddled, producing a more negative reaction than if he had remained firm. At least his original position was defensible by reference to the 1998 Supreme Court decision. Passion usually beats pandering. Dumont won more points on accommodation by sticking to his guns than Charest did by naming the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.
Charest even failed to get a bounce from the goodies in Harper’s budget by turning around and promising $700 million of that money as tax cuts. Dumont got more mileage by questioning why Charest had made federal money an issue if he didn’t need it for government programs. And Boisclair was undermined from the get go by Gilles Duceppe’s speedy declaration that the Bloc would vote for the budget. As the Montreal Economic Institute’s Nathalie Elgrably wrote, “…this underlined the BS of the provinces…” And there was already enough BS on the record of both the PLQ and the PQ.
I first got wind that something was amiss last fall. Charest’s Liberals were well behind the PQ in the polls. But I was told by several leading labour leaders that there was no way Boisclair could be sold in the regions and not to bet on a PQ win. “Le Québec profonde” was about ready to revolt - not against anglophones - but against the Montreal francophone political, media and cultural elites that they resented and that they saw embodied in André Boisclair’s affects and attitudes. The PQ depends heavily on labour’s organizers on the ground. And labour leaders saw no winner in Boisclair. The steady erosion in PQ numbers over the past six months proved them right.
In the last election, because of bad blood between FTQ President Henri Massé and Premier Landry, the FTQ – Quebec’s largest labour alliance - sat it out. When an FTQ official in the Eastern Townships said that his people were working for the PQ, Massé called a hasty press conference to announce that the FTQ was working against the ADQ but for no particular party.
This time around Massé announced early in the campaign that though he felt the PQ platform was closest to labour’s agenda, he would not be endorsing André Boisclair’s leadership. The signal to the PQ was clear. Expect labour votes, but don’t hold your breath for labour work. And without that, getting the optimal PQ turnout proved well nigh impossible. What labour didn’t foresee however was the rise of the ADQ.
There was inner turmoil among Liberals as well. Several high-ranking advisers wanted Charest to wait until late April for a vote to make sure the snowbirds were back from down south. They felt that the 2-4% voter difference would be important in at least a dozen ridings. But most senior Liberals wrote off the ADQ - nobody saw its strength coming - and discounted the danger. They were as wrong as labour’s bosses.
With many PQ ridings disaffected with Boisclair personally, and many Liberal ridings disaffected with Charest politically, Dumont and the ADQ suddenly looked palatable. Though Dumont’s platform was none too clear on details, this election was a case of the ADQ’s hazy fudginess being more attractive than the clarity of the PQ’s sovereignist futility and the Liberals’ failures of policy. Some 36 ridings switched.
The big surprise was Dumont’s “teflonability”. Nothing seemed to hurt the momentum in his numbers. Not the budget that was supposed to help Charest. Not Chantal Hébert’s attacks. Not even the fact that he had to sack two candidates. If there is anything “transformational” in this election it is the answer to this. And that answer may lay in that great word in very politically savvy Quebec…“optique.” The voters saw enough to vest Dumont with the benefit of the doubt.
Dumont gave Quebeckers enough of an “optique” that he would vote with those who would renounce referendums on sovereignty (though no one is clear on what his “autonomy” means); that he would work to roll back big government and make Quebec more competitive (though he was sparse on specifics and wants yet more unspecified powers from Ottawa); that he would protect Quebec values (though few can define them and Dumont’s own comments about “our founding European cultural and religious traditions” are troubling) that they have entrusted him with the power to shape our purpose.
And perhaps he has the maturity to properly steward that trust. For what was particularly telling in the leaders’ remarks Monday night was that while Boisclair continued the sturm-und-drang of “sang et langue” going on about “notre patrie” and keeping alive the dreams of “those who came here 400 years ago”, Dumont talked about the hopes of working people, the elderly and young families trying to make ends meet on constricting incomes and trying to make their dreams realities despite restrictive rule. The irony was not lost on the dozen or so reporters I was with. The “left-wing” Boisclair played the exclusionary ethnic card of his cultural “uberclass”. The supposedly “right-wing” Dumont championed the interests of an economic underclass. Dumont raised hopes he dare not betray. For Quebeckers have now sent a clear message that no, we will forget nothing.
Beryl Wajsman is president of the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal www.iapm.ca
publisher of BARRICADES Magazine www.barricades.ca
and host of Corus Radio’s "The Last Angry Man" on the New 940Montreal.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org