Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Quebec: The white-liner defeats the hard-liner

Yes, it's a cheap shot. But I couldn't resist. And nor should organizers for the Quebec Liberal party. Here's why.

Andre Boisclair has decisively defeated Pauline Marois for the leadership of the Parti Quebecois. In many ways, I think this is a victory of image over substance (or substances over substance - ka-ching!. Okay, that's the last one for this post). Boisclair presents a telegenic image of youth, the future, seemingly progressive values - he is gay, after all - whereas Pauline Marois was identified with the long-term history of the PQ, and might have been perceived of as "yesterday's woman". If you look at the polls, you might be tempted to think that all Boisclair has to do now is sit back and wait for Jean Charest to implode. He can then march merrily to a referendum victory.

I'm less convinced of this fatalistic scenario, for a number of different reasons. First off, the Liberals have at least two years left in their mandate - a tremendous deal can change in that period of time. Charest has just received a booster shot from Lucien Bouchard's manifesto, which he claims justifies his policies. If he can spin that report effectively, it could be a major boon to him. Certainly, a glance at the manifesto's contents seems to favour the Liberal approach to governance more than the traditional PQ stance, and Bouchard still has a lot of clout in Quebec.

There is also something to be said for how past Pequiste leaders haunt their successors. Landry seemed to rebuke Boisclair during the campaign for his cocaine use. His waffling on the referendum issue - although he claims to be committed to a fast-track approach - may foster divisions in the party. Jacques Parizeau certainly played the albatross role for Landry's term in office - will he be any kinder to Boisclair? Will Marois' supporters rally behind him?

As The Globe and Mail points out, Boisclair is also far more conservative than the PQ rank-and-file. What will this do to the party's ability to position itself as the champion of the left? What will Boisclair do with the Bouchard manifesto? We might see a wave of support for the Union des forces progressistes, or some other left-wing splinter group abandon him. Choosing the relatively inexperienced Boisclair over Marois, who had held virtually every senior portfolio, also means that there is room to quiz Boisclair on his command of the issues - I suspect the veneer does not run deep.

Most important is the fact that Boisclair does not appear to do well under pressure. When questioned about his past cocaine use he: a) snapped at reporters; b) claimed it was a youthful indiscretion (like deciding to be a PQ cabinet minister?) and c) blamed it on being under a lot of pressure. If the Liberals do not haul out those quotes at election time to suggest that he would not be capable to lead the province without cracking, let alone a sovereign nation, then they are fools. Don't think that the cocaine issue is a dead one either. I suspect that people are willing to overlook it in the early days, to see if he has really put this behind him, and they'll give him a chance. But when he slips up, the issue will return in force, and people who said it didn't matter to them will be singing a different tune. I also suspect that many Liberal voters in the province lied to pollsters on this issue - of course they didn't care that he was a cocaine user - it was ammunition for the election if he won the party leadership.

The Liberals need to take a full-court press approach to Boisclair in the next election, and indeed over the next two years. Focus on his leadership capacity. Focus on his ideology for governing Quebec. Focus on his judgement. This needs to be a campaign that is not about image, because he's too attractive for the Liberals to beat him here.

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At 12:48 pm, Blogger Gigi said...

Very thought-provoking blog you've got here. As an English (but bilingual) Montrealer, I'm always curious to read Eastern Canada's views on our 'Distinct Society'. Found you with Google. Cheers.


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