Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Quebec election - Transfer Payments and Pipe Dreams

Sometimes I don't trust everything that I read about Quebec in English-language media. I assume that something must have been lost in translation, because what I read appears to be so ridiculous. So today, I verified a story I read in the Globe and Mail in La Presse, to make sure that I could roll on the floor with laughter.

But it's true. Apparently "Mr. Boisclair said the silence of Quebec Conservative ministers in response to Mr. Charest's weekend remarks that transfer payments to Quebec would be cut off in the event of a Yes vote in a sovereignty referendum is a deliberate attempt at influencing the election."

It's hilarious. At worst, André Boisclair was hoping to continue to propagate the myth that Quebec will continue to receive transfer payments from Ottawa, post-sovereignty (which a substantial number of "yes" voters believed in 1995). At best, he thinks that an enraged Canadian electorate would for a second tolerate continued equalization payments during the transition period as Quebec becomes an independent state - sort of a friendly good-bye present. Next he's going to be upset when Lawrence Cannon refuses to deny that the federal government will expect Quebec to take it's share of the national debt in the event of a "yes" vote.

Talk about intervention!

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

Quebec election - Word Games

Words matter. That is why, in case you had any doubt, the Parti Québécois platform doesn't use the word referendum. Recent polls indicate that most Quebeckers - a whopping 67% of them, according to a recent CROP poll - don't want to have a referendum within the next government's mandate. And so this is why M. Boisclair speaks of public consultations on sovereignty, and is mealy-mouthed on why his platform dodges the "R" word, even as PQ campaign signs throughout the city highlight the word "Oui".

There is an excellent column by André Pratte today about the use of language by the sovereignist/separatist/independentist movement in Quebec. I've run into this minefield of terminology myself when writing about Quebec history. How do you describe an author who supports Quebec independence? Do you use the term "sovereignist", if that is their preferred designation? Or do you use the term separatist, since that is ultimately the political objective that they support? Different terms have wildly different meanings for people, which is why politicians are (usually) so careful in how they deploy them.

The federalist in me is very pleased by this development, as I consider M. Boisclair's reluctance to speak of referendums a sign that he's nervous about what this issue might do for his party's electoral chances. But the cynic in me wonders whether, once again, soft-pedalling the real significance of what the PQ is fighting for might fool enough of the electorate to bring them to power.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Quebec election - The Third Parties

Not one to be easily shoved aside in what is usually a two-way race, Mario Dumont has come out swinging to try to make the ADQ relevant in this election. Yesterday, he was talking about a Quebec citizenship and a Quebec constitution, to lay out the terms for "reasonable accomodation" of immigrants to the province. This seems to be one of his big cards for rural Quebec. Today, he announced support for two-tier health care in Outremont, with his star candidate declaring himself in favour of allowing individuals to completely opt out of the public health care system. This strikes me as a risky strategy in a province where the right wing is getting awfully crowded, but is fighting for a smaller pool of voters than in other provinces. I'm not certain if talking about private health care in Montreal, where it might seem more viable, will appeal as much to voters in Trois-Pistoles. But it certainly seems that M. Dumont is trying to make this a policy-oriented election, rather than allowing Boisclair and Charest to fight it out on the federalist-separatist battleground.

With all of this attention on the right-of-centre, it will be interesting to see what Quebec Solidaire can do in its efforts to target a few Montreal ridings with its left-wing message. Traditionally, you could count on the PQ to occupy the left wing of the political spectrum, and Boisclair's drift to the right has alienated this wing of the party. Are voters alienated enough to take a risk with a new party? This could become an interesting question, particularly as vote-splitting seems to be a likely phenomenon this year.

I'm writing this post from the riding of Mercier, in Montreal's Plateau neighbourhood, and the signs are sprouting rapidly on lampposts. Election fever is in the air, and it's going to be a bumpy ride.

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L'élection québécoise. On commence...

And they're off to the races! Jean Charest visited the lieutenant-governor of Quebec yesterday morning, and the election campaign is on. Things will be very interesting between now and March 26th. Here's my capsule version of what I think the most important dynamics will be - subject to change over the campaign:

1) Three-way races and vote splitting. The ADQ, as it often does, is riding well in the polls at the moment, and much of that support is concentrated in small-town Quebec, the traditional stomping ground of the Creditistes and the Union Nationale. If this holds, it could bleed significant support from the PQ, creating some tight three-way races. While I don't expect them to win any significant percentage of the provincial vote, the left-wing Quebec Solidaire might bleed away support from the left flank of the PQ, particularly in Montreal, which would also help Charest's Liberals.

2) Leadership. Charest goes into this election not as a loved premier, but as an experienced one, and also as a reasonably competent one. I thought it would take longer for him to start sniping at Andre Boisclair's "immaturity", but that particular card is already in play. We'll see over the next few weeks just how Quebeckers actually feel about his past cocaine use (and approach to unions, and to the United States, and to the referendum issue). I want to believe that his homosexuality will not be an issue, but I could very easily see it playing a role, particularly among more right-wing sovereignists.

3) Federalism. Jean Charest (also known as the junior Mulroney minister who tried to salvage the Meech Lake Accord) and Stephen Harper have been trying very hard to improve the Ottawa-Quebec City relationship. Expect to see a very Quebec-favorable budget come down on March 19th. I don't think we'll see direct federal intervention on the hustings, but federal policies will play a very important role. It'll be interesting to see how Dion approaches the federal budget, with a potential federal election looming as well.

4) "Reasonable Accomodation". The issue of multiculturalism is getting a lot of press in Quebec, even after Charest created the Bouchard-Taylor commission. I think this will be a hot-button issue outside of Montreal, and that it will be the ADQ that gains support from those who think it is an important topic because they are uncomfortable with it. Mario Dumont called yesterday for a Quebec constitution and citizenship (to complement the Canadian ones) which would lay out a statement of principles about what it means to be a Quebecker. He's certainly not looking like someone who will wait for a commission report.

5) Provincial policy issues. Taxes, tuition increases, regional development. I'm sure that we will see them all in the parties' campaign literature, but I don't think these are going to be the major issues of the campaign. With Boisclair and Dumont both posititoning themselves on the right, Charest doesn't have as much to defend against in terms of starkly different economic visions for the province. We'll see colourful coverage of student protests, but Charest's proposed $100/year tuition increase, coupled with major investment in post-secondary education, is probably not enough to really stoke the ire of most voters.

Who will win? It's far too early to say, and we may yet see a minority government. But Charest is in a good position with the PQ fighting internally, and support for sovereignty at a lower point than it was two years ago. This may come down to individual riding battles, and close three-way races, and it'll be really interesting to watch. I wouldn't rule out some major electoral gaffe by one leader or another (or a past leader, for that matter) which could change the dynamics completely!

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On the eve of a Quebec election

Forgive me for my extended absence, gentle readers. I've been coming to terms with turning thirty. I've made it through some delightful festivities none the worse for wear, and am ready to start a new decade of my life feeling refreshed and only moderately hung over.

And what excitement there shall be in terms of political life! After six weeks of nothing but the environment - an important issue, but one about which I am woefully underinformed, Quebec is about to take centre stage again. So much excitement, so much speculation, so many possibilities for egregious gaffes!

Will Andre Boisclair say something to alienate the separatist troops? Will Harper pretend that he believes in a fiscal imbalance to help Charest get elected? Will Mario Dumont manage to win more than four seats? Will Stephane Dion say something about an issue other than the environment in the next five weeks? Will Jacques Parizeau or Bernard Landry say something truly offensive? Stay tuned for the answer to these questions and more, as the election campaign begins on Ash Wednesday...

After doing my best to get psyched up about the New Brunswick battle of the bland, this is going to be quite the doozy of a campaign!


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Friday, February 09, 2007

When in doubt, strike a commission

Facing a scandal in Hérouxville and studies which claim that the majority of Quebeckers are at least somewhat racist (although the methodology of these polls are suspect), Quebec Premier Jean Charest has opted to follow a glorious Canadian tradition and strike a commission to resolve the debate over how to integrate minorities into Quebec society.

Charest's selection of commission co-chairs makes it evident that he's not seeking radical new proposals. Gérard Bouchard, a sociologist and historian at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, and Charles Taylor, a philosophy professor at McGill (and former NDP candidate), are both outspoken proponents of the collectivist approach to identity that has long been followed by successive Quebec governments. Essentially, Jean Charest is paying these two leading intellectuals to go across the province, hold hearings, and then slightly rephrase their existing published works in a nice report in a year's time.

The Bouchard-Taylor Commission may diffuse the issue for a while, as commissions are expected to do. However, to make a big deal out of the commission being non-partisan ducks the main issue. It is ideologically and intellectually one-sided, and will not produce a report that calls for any substantial revision of Quebec's policies to give greater latitude to individual rights or pluralism. I have little doubt that the report will be well-written and intellectually rigorous. But if you want a preview of the outcome, you could read La nation au singulier et au pluriel, Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, and Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition for a pretty good overview of what that commission will say.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

Le Québec indépendant - Land of a million putsches

Watching the latest effort by a former PQ leader to undermine his successor, ably examined by La Presse's Michel Auger and André Pratte, I can't help but wonder what impression, if any, this makes when Quebec voters contemplate what an independent country led by these people would look like.

It must be nightmarish to think of André Boisclair's triumphant inauguration address, followed a week later by a Bernard Landry-led coup, only to be overthrown the next month by a putsch led by the Quebec armed forces sympathetic to Jacques Parizeau. Two weeks later, revolutionary militants led by Pauline Marois undertake a glorious revolution. All the while, more moderate forces are coalescing around Lucien Bouchard and Mario Dumont, undertaking covert talks with the Canadian government to see about re-entry prospects if they topple the government.

Watching the PQ leadership makes relations between Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien seem downright cordial.

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