Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Quebec election - The Morning After

If I could meet them in person, I'd have some harsh words to say to the poll clerks and returning officers in Sherbrooke - thanks to them, I was up about an hour and a half longer than I needed to be, hitting "refresh results" every few minutes to find out if Jean Charest was indeed, as CBC was claiming, defeated in his own riding. I've been groggy all day as a result. As a spectator sport, last night was awesome. I haven't been so rivetted by a leaderboard since the 1995 referendum.

Greater (and more alert) pundits than I have already weighed in with most of what I would say about the significance of the election, but I'll sum up what I think are the most important bits:

1) By no means does the third place finish of the PQ mean that the sovereignty movement is dead. All three parties campaigned on their ability to win concessions from Ottawa, and Dumont's "autonomiste" option is sovereignty-lite. Voters were prepared to punish both the Liberals and the PQ, but this means that the issue is temporarilly dormant, ready to be awakened when Mario Dumont eventually makes a demand that Stephen Harper won't concede, and is then accused of having made a "grave insult" to Quebec.

2) André Boisclair's career as PQ leader, despite his protestations to the contrary, is over. The PQ does not treat failed leaders well, and will seek to regain its rural support, and perhaps rebuild its bridges with the left. Maybe Lisette Lapointe (Jacques Parizeau's wife) wants to make PQ leadership a family affair?

3) Quebec Solidaire and the Greens did surprisingly well in Eastern and Western Montreal respectively. If I were Daniel Turp, I'd be thanking my various gods today.

4) Mario Dumont is now in the driver's seat, and in an ideal position for future growth. He narrowly dodged becoming the Bob Rae of Quebec provincial politics, and will instead have some time to break in his new crop of MNAs, and figure out who the wingnuts are.

5) It's going to be a painful few years on the federal-provincial relations front. My best guess is that, having extracted concessions on the equalization front, the Charest-Dumont duo will now go after tax points, and call on Ottawa to lower federal taxes to make more room for Quebec to raise more of its own revenue. The big question is whether Stephen Harper thinks that every ADQ seat is a potential federal Conservative district. Personally, I have my doubts that everyone who voted ADQ is a conservative - there were other factors at play, like protest voting, nationalism, and anti-Montreal sentiment - but if Harper thinks that decentralization and dancing the Jean et Mario two-step will win him votes, he may go a long way indeed to meet their demands.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Who will win the Quebec election?

There are times when I'm really glad that I'm a historian as opposed to a political scientist or a journalistic pundit. My job entails looking at an election campaign years after it is over, examining various pieces of evidence, and only then explaining why it turned out the way it did. It's a somewhat less daunting challenge than reading the tea leaves in a three-way race and attempting to predict who will win.

But because I like to dabble, here's my best guess. It will be a minority government. I suspect that Charest will come out with the most seats, but not by a large margin. This will make Dumont the effective kingmaker, and I suspect he will prop up the Liberals for as long as it is convenient for him.

There is not a minority government scenario that I can envision where André Boisclair plays an active role in making or supporting policy. There is simply too much distance between Boisclair and Charest on issues of federalism, and between Boisclair and Dumont on issues of social policy to make a coalition involving the PQ viable. So even if Boisclair wins the most seats, if he fails to claim a majority, he is unlikely to form the government, and if he tries to, it will fall at the first budget.

What does this mean, in a broader sense? It means a continuation of demands for decentralization of powers and fiscal space from Ottawa to Quebec City, coupled with some right-wing policy shifts. I don't Quebec is in for a Mike Harris-style revolution, but there may be some selective moves away from the state-centric policy that has characterized Quebec's political economy since the 1960s.

What's that rumbling sound you hear? That would be the sound of the campaign buses of Boisclair's rivals revving up for an impending leadership race.

Of course, all the pollsters could be wrong, and we could see a majority government tomorrow. We'll all just have to wait and see!

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Random budget-related thoughts

I may or may not develop a more coherent post on the budget than this one, but here are some initial thoughts:

1) Equalization: Keep smoking that bong, Flaherty, if you think that you've got out of the "fiscal imbalance" quagmire for good. The fact that you've attached strings (like accountability provisions) to some of the new transfers, including post-secondary education, will be cited as evidence of a federal effort to continue to control how this money is spent.

2) "New York, here I come!": This little tidbit must be aimed to secure the affluent gay vote. I'm actually really pleased to see the 48-hour traveller's exemption double - up to $400. Now I can buy those pairs of shoes that I want on my weekend jaunts to New York - and have room left over on my allowance for a nice bottle of alcohol!

3) Post-Secondary Education: More money for graduate students is always welcome. But you'll note that of the 1000 new scholarships being created, only 200 are going to SSHRC, whereas the bulk of graduate students in this country are in the humanities and social sciences. I'm not surprised, given the focus of this government on business-friendly education, but still somewhat disappointed.

I may update this post periodically today as I read through other sections of the budget...


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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Quebec election - Post-debate thoughts

I managed to watch about 75% of the leaders' debate last night on TVA - for whatever reason, RDI is not part of the basic cable package in Atlantic Canada, and Radio-Canada didn't feel it necessary to show the debate out here!

I did not expect great things from Jean Charest, given the rough first term that he has had, and his two great failures to do much about his promises to reduce wait times and lower taxes. That being said, he generally seemed to be calm and controlled, and on top of his dossiers. He is really playing up the "look what a constructive partner in Confederation can get out of Ottawa" card. Although he was the main focus of the attacks last night, he fared reasonably well. It wasn't a particularly dynamic performance, but it won't hurt him either, I suspect.

I have never had the opportunity to hear André Boisclair speak for more than a brief sound bite. I was rather surprised at how reserved and quiet he appeared to be, fading into the background, and under the volume of the other two leaders. His exchanges with Mario Dumont were the most interesting, with Boisclair continually repeating the same pointed questions at Dumont, which Dumont tried to dodge. I was not particularly surprised, but was amused, at how Boisclair only spoke of a referendum once during his opening statement, and then it was almost as an afterthought at the end of a statement, with his voice dropping as he delivered that part of his speech. Like Charest, I don't know that Boisclair will be hurt by this performance, but he certainly didn't come off as either charismatic or dynamic.

Mario Dumont had the most to lose from last night's debate, and I think it did hurt him. He came out like a pitbull, attacking the two other leaders in an aggressive fashion. However, the other two seemed determined to show up the lack of depth in his plans, and his lack of experience. He had few responses for their pointed questions, and looked out of control at various points. His catch phrase "People will say that a vote for the ADQ is this or that, but a vote for the ADQ is a vote for the ADQ, and if that is what you want, it's a vote for you" (my rough translation) is incoherent bafflegab. He's definitely aiming for small and medium sized communities with his very heavy emphasis on families, particularly those who don't use the daycare system, and on support for small business. It won't win him much love in Montreal, but it might just sell in the regions and in Quebec City. His platform will win him little love outside of the province - as someone who lives outside the province, his question attacking Charest regarding the lack of "demandes" from the federal government in the Liberal platform presses all the wrong buttons for me.

One thing is clear - the real show is next Monday's federal budget. Charest is promising results from his cooperation with Ottawa and the other provinces, and Dumont is waiting until after it comes down to show his numbers. And so we wait another week...

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Quebec election - Debate Night

Tonight is the leaders' debate in the Quebec election campaign. With two weeks remaining until election day, and poll numbers fluctuating pretty wildly, this event effectively kicks off the "real" campaign in some respects. Tonight voters will get to watch Charest's first leaders' debate where he has to defend his record, and we'll see if either Boisclair or Dumont are able to score significant points - or if they find themselves fending off attacks themselves.

The other shoe will drop next week with the announcement of the federal budget. From recent reports, Alberta Premier Stelmach is seeming mollified as well. Will this budget end up being everything that we've been led to expect, with hefty new subsidies for equalization? Where will that money be coming from? Will Dalton McGuinty dare attack the Harper budget with a week left in the Quebec election campaign, or will he hold his fire until the votes are in?

And apropos of absolutely nothing - I'm now into my tenth week of waiting for my renewed passport. Health care wait times are bothering me less than passport wait times at the moment.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Anti-secessionist voices in Francophone Quebec

La Presse's chief editorialist André Pratte must take a lot of flack in intellectual/media circles in Quebec. A "yes" voter in the 1980 referendum, he has since turned his back on the secessionist movement. Moreover, as he does in his blog today (in French), he has opted not to simply withdraw from active participation in debates over secession, but to tackle them head-on, puncturing various myths as he goes.

As Pratte mentions, to engage in these debates honestly as a federalist is to be labelled "irresponsible". To speak of the possible partition of an independent Quebec, to talk about the possibility that investment in the province might drop off after secession, to raise the spectre of an end to equalization payments in the transition period is to speak the unspeakable. And so, he praises Charest for being honest enough to even consider these possibilities when asked about them by journalists, rather than glibly denying these real possibilities. It's not just Charest who should be thanked for a bit of honesty on this front, Pratte deserves a heap of credit for being willing to put his own beliefs in print, into what can be a very chilly intellectual atmosphere, especially for a francophone - as Stéphane Dion found out in the mid-90s (and for which he continues to pay the price.

Quebec needs more of these eloquent francophone voices to oppose separatism, particularly at a time when neither major federalist federal party is held in high esteem.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

New Brunswick: A wee bit of good news for Liberals

Last night there was a by-election in the provincial riding of Moncton East, recently vacated by the resignation of former Conservative Premier Bernard Lord. The Liberal candidate, Chris Collins easily won, by a margin of about 1,000 votes. This should make life easier for the provincial Liberals, who are now up by a margin of 30-25 in the provincial legislature.

Premier Shawn Graham seems to be enjoying a bit of a honeymoon with the voters here. His federal counterpart must be jealous. Of course, I don't think that there has been a cabal of journalists in the province taking shots at Graham's French, just for sport, either.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Chantal Hébert, French Kiss: Stephen Harper's Blind Date with Quebec

Back in the fall, when Chantal Hébert columns ceased appearing on the Toronto Star's website, and a notice went up that she was on leave while writing a book, I became very excited. After all, Hébert is one of the few columnists in Canadian political journalism that I felt I could usually turn to for insightful analysis that wasn't overtly partisan. Indeed, friends of mine who work in media relations have complained (with grudging admiration), that she could not be "spun". And what better time for a book on the surprising revival of the Conservative party in Quebec – released mere days after the provincial election campaign had begun, a campaign which was witnessing some surprising strength from the right-leaning Action Démocratique du Québec. Here, I thought, would be a book that would couple the experience of a long-time observer of Canadian and Quebec politics to an analysis of more recent developments in the province.

Hébert's recent vitriol towards the recently-crowned Liberal leader Stéphane Dion should have tipped me off that I'd be in for some disappointment with her first book-length work. French Kiss does not live up to expectations, whether in terms of the subject matter promised by the title, in logical organization, or in clear-headed analysis. This is not to say that the book is without its merits. Hébert provides some interesting anecdotes of behind-the-scenes negotiations among Liberal cabinet ministers about how to address the social policy front. She is prescient in foretelling that André Boisclair's "Montrealness" might pose problems for him among the rank-and-file PQ membership in rural areas. And, like Paul Wells, she sees the randomness of Paul Martin's legislative agenda and his ill-thought-out plan to launch the Gomery commission as key reasons why his party was decimated in Quebec. Dotted throughout her narrative are other key nuggets of insight into the failure of Canadian politics to address the underrepresentation of women, and the failure of the NDP to grow beyond its base (as well as its delusions of completely supplanting the Liberals).

In other respects, the book was a major disappointment. To begin with its title (which authors are often unable to select for themselves, but let's work on the assumption that she did pick it), there is a serious lack of analysis of its announced subject matter - Harper's success in Quebec. I would have expected Hébert to delve more deeply into the nature of Quebec's electorate in order to explain the "surprise" victories of Conservative MPs. Indeed, there is a long strain of fiscal and social conservatism in Quebec, which explains the past successes of the Union Nationale, the Créditistes, the Mulroney Conservatives, and even the ADQ. This vote is concentrated around Quebec city, in smaller towns and in rural Quebec. Quebec is not a monolith of left-wing voters – it has just often appeared that way, because the sovereignist/federalist axis has overwhelmingly defined Quebec political parties, and the sovereignists also tended to line up with left-wing politics.

Hébert does not, however, look at this long-standing dynamic, and prefers to explain away the election of Conservative MPs as the result of Harper's endorsement of decentralized federalism. This may be one element of his popularity in some circles in Quebec, but it is certainly not the only key factor, and Hébert does her readers a disservice in implying that it is. Indeed, there is very little analysis of the Harper Conservatives' campaign in Quebec, their election promises, or his performance in the leadership debates in this book, all of which might have proven fodder for analysis as to why his government pulled out some wins. The fact that Josée Verner, Stephen Harper's extra-parliamentary Quebec lieutenant during his years in opposition, fails to appear at all in this book is shocking.

Organizationally, the book is a dog's breakfast. Hébert notes in her acknowledgements that not a line of her manuscript was shown to anyone before she submitted it to Knopf. I would not have advertised that fact. Apparently she didn't let her editors do much with it either, or perhaps they were rushing the book into print to make it out in time for the election. For one example of the chaotic organization, Chapter 20 "Spinning Wheels" begins with a discussion of the HRDC scandal, jumps to the role of MPs in minority parliaments, segues into a tribute to the good work being done by the Senate, with a brief diversion to mention that the body needs to be reformed, and ends up with a discussion of the need to move beyond partisanship to discuss euthanasia and other moral issues – all in eight pages. This reflects the overall structure of the book, which leaps from topic to topic, without any obvious chronological or thematic structure. It makes it very difficult to follow Hébert's argument, such as it is.

As for the argument, it is much more in line with Hébert's job as a columnist for the nationalist daily Le Devoir. As I mentioned in my previous post, this book is primarily a lament for the demise of the Meech Lake Accord. Hébert's book has villains, and they are the people who failed to see the beauty and elegance of the Meech Lake Accord, which would have given voice to the long-downtrodden government of Quebec, which was so brutally overlooked by Pierre Trudeau when he patriated the constitution. (I exaggerate a bit, for emphasis.) In her version, Jean Chrétien, Elijah Harper, Clyde Wells and others were short-sighted when they opposed the Accord, seemingly for no good reason, and then went on to help pass the Clarity Act, which was also an affront to all proper-thinking individuals, and which (she claims) had no traction whatsoever in Quebec. Harper's success, she argues, is due to the fact that finally a federalist leader is reaching out to Quebec, a province that had been ignored for a decade by federal leaders who refused to engage its aspirations. Worse still, the Chrétien and Martin Liberals blindly trundled into the sacred realm of social programs, where they had no business, when they should have stayed within their constitutional jurisdiction to deal with income-support programs like EI, Old Age Pensions and equalization.

You'll forgive me if I, unlike Hébert, opt not to swallow the nationalist Kool-Aid. Nowhere in her book does she mention some of the key factors which turned Canadian public opinion against Meech – most notably the inept way in which Premier Bourassa handled the introduction of Bill 178 (the sign laws) in such a way as to lead Canadians to think that the distinct society clause meant a blank cheque to trample on the rights of the anglophone minority in the province. Nor does she seem to think that part of the reason why the demise of Meech caused such outrage could have something to do with the inflammatory rhetoric used by Bourassa (and other leaders) when it failed to be adopted. And that is without getting into the potential dynamics of an amending formula which would have required unanimous approval by the provinces of almost all constitutional changes.

As for the Clarity Act, Hébert is unable to square her argumentative circle of why if indeed this Act was the nail in the Liberal coffin in the province (as she claims), Jean Chrétien's best election performance in Quebec (and that includes francophone Quebec), was the election after the Act was passed, and after Stéphane Dion had begun his campaign of debunking secessionist rhetoric. A history lesson is also needed in terms of federal involvement in EI and Old Age Pensions, which both required a constitutional amendment in order for Ottawa to assume jurisdiction over these formerly provincial fields. There is nothing more inherently provincial about medicare as opposed to these other jurisdictions. The shape of Canadian federalism has changed over time, and some jurisdictions have changed hands. That the federal government established a poor track record with the provinces in the 90s in these sectors is true enough, but one could argue (counterfactually, but that doesn't stop Hébert), that if the federal government had not clawed back funding to those sectors, many Canadians (including Quebecers) would have been just as happy today to see a constitutional amendment making health care a federal jurisdiction.

Hébert may think that the "distinct society" clause is harmless, and that classical federalism is the only way to move forward in Quebec. I would argue, however, that there are several blind spots to her argument. Without a clear understanding of the legal meaning of a "distinct society", or a "Quebec nation", there will rightfully be concerns from the minority communities in the province about what sorts of constitutional powers this confers on the provincial government, particularly where language and culture are concerned. Hébert's lauding of Quebec's social safety net, which she thinks can only continue to grow and thrive without interference from Ottawa, also reveals some tunnel vision. Unlike smaller provinces, such as New Brunswick, PEI, or Manitoba, Quebec benefits from a fairly large population and industrial base that can partially fund these services, and make them viable in terms of economies of scale. Smaller, poorer provinces tend to accept an activist role from Ottawa in social policy since this provides the capital and coordination to make these new initiatives viable. Hébert also forgets that a significant part of Quebec's social security net is funded by equalization payments – drawn mainly from Ontario and Alberta (and Saskatchewan these days). With current rhetoric coming out of those provinces, I am starting to wonder how long it will be before those provinces get tired of funding boutique social programs in Quebec, when that province shows little interest in participating in a national dialogue, and fights against new national social programs. I am increasingly suspecting that willingness to support national equalization is tied to willingness to support national social programs. If this linkage continues to fray, Canada may be in for some very hostile intergovernmental relations indeed.

I continue to consider Chantal Hébert one of Canada's top political journalists, and my disappointment with this book will not prevent me from continuing to read her work (or link to her columns from this blog). However, I think that Knopf did her reputation a disservice by releasing this book onto the market without more rigorous editing. This could have been one of the most important pieces of political writing released this year, and instead it is a disjointed exercise in "what-if"s, which fails to even fulfill the mandate of its title. Hopefully her next effort will be better.

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Chantal Hébert, Lament for Meech

I'm more than three-quarters of the way through Chantal Hébert's new book, French Kiss: Stephen Harper's Blind Date with Quebec. Within the next few days, I'll have a full review up. But in the interim, let me state how disappointed I am in this book. I usually rely on Hébert for a clear-eyed analysis of Canadian politics, and she rarely disappoints. I was hoping for more of that in this book, and in particular for some good analysis of the rise of the Conservative party in Quebec in the last election (and perhaps some tidbits on the ADQ and social conservatism).

It's not there. Instead, we have Hébert's answer to George Grant's 1965 opus Lament for a Nation. Only in this case, it's Lament for Meech Lake, a warmed-over rehashing of all the Quebec nationalists' myths about how wonderful the country would be if the Meech Lake Accord had only passed, complete with crystal ball predictions of how we'd now have an elected Senate and vibrant new social programs. There is no acknowledgement of the deep flaws in that Accord, and the political context which led to it becoming deeply unpopular throughout Canada in 1990.

I expect clearer thought from Hébert, and a more rigorous analysis. Her book delivers neither.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Montreal vs ROQ: Homophobia in the Quebec Election

Last week, it was his cocaine use, this week, it's his homosexuality. Sadly, the issue that I predicted would dog André Boisclair on the campaign trail has indeed come up, raised by a shock-jock radio host in the Saguenay, where another openly gay candidate, Sylvain Gaudreault, is running for the PQ in Jonquière.

For a campaign which started off nasty, things just seem to be getting worse and worse, and the main beneficiary of the turmoil appears to be the ADQ, which is making huge gains in Quebec City and the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region, if you believe the polls.

My read on this isn't that it's the fact that Boisclair is gay that is the central issue. As Chantal Hébert has pointed out in her new book French Kiss, which I started devouring last night, it's the fact that Boisclair is so emblematic of urban Montreal, and by extension, so appears the PQ. As we saw in the last federal election, Canadian politics appears to increasingly be reflecting a split in political (and social) values along urban-rural lines. In Quebec, this is why we see the issues of multiculturalism (or interculturalism, as it's called there), and sexuality being used as wedge issues.

Progressive Canadians should be very concerned about this trend. Rural and small-town Canada is better represented in the legislatures on a per-capita basis than the cities are, and those discontented voices will be able to flex their muscle if a) we leave the distribution of seats as it currently stands, and b) more effort isn't made to spread progressive values in smaller communities.

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