The significance of Outremont
As I write this post, it looks like Thomas Mulcair is on his way to a victory in Outremont. As someone who once lived in that riding, and volunteered for the NDP in the 2004 election campaign, I'm pleased for him.
But by-elections are strange beasts, and rarely mean all that much in the broader scheme of events. Indeed, the last (and only other) time the NDP won a seat in Quebec, it was a by-election victory. Heck, a Communist MP managed to win a by-election in Quebec in 1943 (Fred Rose, re-elected in 1945). By-elections are great opportunities for local issues to rise to the fore, or for frustrations to be vented without fear of affecting the overall structure of government. However, they often do not indicate what they appear to on the surface.
And so while I am happy for Thomas Mulcair, I think that he will ultimately be another flash in the pan for the NDP in Quebec. He was elected at least partly on the strength of his high profile in the province from his years in the Charest cabinet. Previous NDP candidates in the riding (where the party has fared far better than elsewhere in the province) have barely eked out 10-20% of the vote. And so, much as I wish it were otherwise, I don't think this is indicative of a broader trend for NDP strength in other constituencies.
I think the bigger story, unfortunately for the Liberals, is the further decline of their vote from the 2004/06 levels which were already lower in Outremont under Jean Lapierre than they had been under Martin Cauchon. The Bloc vote does appear to be declining, but in one of the other by-elections, it was the Conservative who picked up those votes, not the NDP. And while a single NDP seat in the House of Commons from Quebec is a pleasing thought for me, the spectre of over a dozen new Conservative pick-ups in former Bloc (and perhaps even Liberal) seats does not.
On a side-note, Quebec's historic election results are one of the reasons why I support electoral reform towards some system of MMP. The left-wing/NDP vote and the Liberal vote alike are concentrated on the heavily-populated island of Montreal, and yet the high raw voting numbers for candidates who espouse these values or political leanings rarely translate into a seat count in the legislature that reflects this fact. For decades now, it has been possible for separatist/sovereignist/Union Nationale parties to win more seats than their share of the popular vote entitles them to, largely because their vote is dispersed across less-populous rural ridings.
Most egregious was the 1994 election, where the Liberals took a greater share of the popular vote (44.75%) than the PQ (44.4%) and yet were outnumbered in the legislature 77 seats to 47. As a result, we were treated to a Jacques Parizeau-led government, and the 1995 sovereignty referendum. I recognize that even if Quebec had had the version of MMP that is proposed for Ontario, Parizeau would have still formed the government. But the crushing majorities that do not reflect the voters intentions would no longer be the norm, and third parties might have a chance to break through the entrenched and often stale dynamics that characterize most provincial electoral systems.Recommend this Post