A summer election for Quebec

I generally hunt and gather an odd array of topics and try to give politics a bit of a rest. But no mercy today, because of a provincial election called this past week.

The last time Quebec hit the radar screen in the U.S., Montreal was gripped by a l-o-n-g run of student protests. (Montreal wasn’t the only site of protest, but it was – and remains – the focal point.)

The initial fuss reflected the rejection by some students of proposed tuition hikes. But the issue got even bigger when the government’s response seemed to threaten civil rights – especially the right of assembly, protest and free speech. NCPR’s Brian Mann reported on this in two stories: one on protest themes, the second on protest mechanics.

I’m a fan of Ian Austen’s coverage  of Canadian news for the New York Times. Austen reported on the protest situation back in May. The increase in anti-government feeling is nicely summarized in another article in June.

As Austen explained, it’s far from a minor issue:

… when the provincial government of Quebec tried to end the demonstrations by arresting more than 2,500 people and passing an emergency law that some Canadian lawyers consider heavy-handed and perhaps unconstitutional, it helped turn what had been a narrowly focused student strike against increases in college and university costs into a battle over a broader set of grievances that has introduced some of the greatest political turmoil Canada has seen in decades.

Many wondered if the situation would force (or prompt) an election, which has come to pass. (Timelines and full candidate lists can be found on this Wikipedia entry.)

Quebec major party leaders: Premier Jean Charest, Liberal; Pauline Marois, Parti Québécois; and François Legault, Coalition Avenir Québec.

After a full month of campaigning, Quebeckers will have their say September 4th. Current Liberal Provincial Premier Jean Charest is seeking a fourth straight mandate, hoping he can rally the politician’s oft-invoked ‘silent majority’ of supportive voters at the ballot box – even as polls suggest high disapproval levels for his current leadership.

Student protest is not the only thing on voters’ minds. Among other issues like jobs and the economy, scandals involving allegations of corruption and criminality in Quebec’s construction industry loom large. And – as with most elections – competing political parties content they offer the best choice for general governance. This being Quebec, arguments surrounding sovereignty – dormant of late, but never truly gone –  may heat up once again.

As a rule, Canadians much prefer that their relatively short elections take place in the spring or fall. It seems to be considered bad form – almost rude – to call one in summer or winter. After all, winters present logistical difficulties for campaigning. Summers here are seen as scared – on account of waiting all blessed year for a too-short season of warm relaxation.

August, in particular, is supposed to be a safe time to take a vacation or just savor family life. It is most definitely not when most people want to listen to political speeches or volunteer to help campaign. No, those who can would far rather be having a nice, news-free stay at the cottage.

The Globe and Mail’s political columnist John Ibbitson had an interactive Q&A on the election on Wednesday. He painted the big picture this way:

The chances of a Liberal victory are about even-odds, I’d guess. Yes, corruption scandals have hurt the Liberals, but the PQ isn’t exactly beloved, leader Pauline Marois is unpopular, and the new Coalition Avenir Quebec is, well, new. As for whether I think one party should win, I leave that to Quebec voters to decide.

Calling Charest “a superb campaigner” Ibbitson is among many who see the timing as a strategic maneuver:

He’s clearly calling this election in the doldrums of summer to dampen interest in the race. Then he hopes to outcampaign Ms. Marois, shoring up support from whoever is interested. It’s pretty opportunistic, but when you’re down the the polls and seeking a fourth mandate, you do what you gotta do.

Writing in Maclean’s Magazine, Paul Wells offered up a re-cap of Charest’s record to date – and his prospects looking forward.

Charest is instead running as the candidate of normality, as the devil you know, or as the regular guy you know under whom the only devils who run free are the devils you already know. The alternatives, he’ll argue, are “the street and a referendum,” a reference to the PQ’s support for tuition-fee protesters and to its sovereignty project. I’m watching him deliver his kick-off speech at Quebec City’s airport, promising “peace” and “stability” in an election that “is not like others.”

I live in Ontario. Despite sporadic attempts to remedy the deficit, I don’t have any French to speak of. And I don’t know a lot of Quebec residents. So my limited sense of this election comes from media accounts, which can’t always deliver the whole flavor of events like this.

A French-language leaders debate has been scheduled by a media consortium for August 9, amid complaints about who gets to participate.

As  local coverage often adds more depth and perspective, here’s a link for the summary page of election coverage by the Montreal Gazette.

The Gazette reports that student protest groups have made defeating Charest a top priority. There are risks for a resumption of student street protests, which took a two month break over the summer. Some are calling for an election truce on the theory that renewed disruptions would boost Charest’s standing with the many who want peace and order. Some protests resumed this week, including demonstrations that led to injuries and arrests.

The Montreal Gazette reports that Quebec’s largest student group has come out on Friday in support of continuing the current mobilization in August and beyond, regardless of the election’s outcome. CLASSE co-spokesperson Camille Robert hopes a protest scheduled for Aug. 22 can be  “the biggest protest in an election period in Quebec history,” (By the way, the Gazette also has a summary page for its reporting on the student strike, in case you’re interested.)

Coincidentally, colleges and universities across Quebec have been told to apply the contested tuition hikes on September 4th (election day) without awaiting the outcome of the election.

There are many reasons smoke and heat from the tuition protest have been mainly confined to Quebec. Differences in culture, in politics and even in the structure of student unions. Even though tuition is higher outside of Quebec, Carleton University journalism student Brian Platt argues that most student unions across the rest of Canada function in a way that practically guarantees limited student engagement.

If you’re from Quebec and can share views from that vantage point, please do!

And, as usual, civil comments from all readers are always welcome.

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4 Comments on “A summer election for Quebec”

  1. Mario Drapeau says:

    There is an important point missing in your analysis. It is that an inquiry board (Commission Charbonneau) is starting hearings on September 15th. The scope of work of that inquiry board is corruption scandal in the construction industry. There is been since two years gleams and bit of information, a few arrest but not much, only small fish. We are talking allegation that public call for tenders are framed, where representative of workers unions, contractors would be involved. Organized crime would be involved in directing the circulation, making sure everybody respect the rules and got a profit, including organized crime. There are also allegations that election organizers get involved in collecting money from the same contractor representative. That election money could be wash through 20 or 50 name holders, receiving cash, making check up to the legal limits to the party, the name holders getting tax credits. Worst, there is also allegations that brown envelopes are feeding clandestine election fund, paying black expenses and under table salaries. If verified or supported, such claims would have been destructive for liberal, in the scenario of a next fall or next spring elections.

    The rumour is that liberal ANM where concerns about an election right now, due to the actual look of the pool and public moods. Jean Charest answers would have been “Because you think it would turn better later? “

    The other rumour is that the government make sure to stretch, sabotage any negotiation with the student association representative, in order to create a crisis and show up as the only possible saver, on a law and order mode. I would believe it: I was a student in the 80’, at the time there were demands, strike and negotiations to get either freeze of the tuition fees or even elimination of the tuitions fees, and things never turned that ugly.

    That was my 0.05$ of common sense.

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  2. Hank says:

    “Summers here are seen as scared”

    I don’t think this particular summer is scared; it has been here with a vengeance, given our drought conditions.

    Sorry, Lucy, I couldn’t resist “LOLing” at this particular innocent typo.

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  3. dbw says:

    Lucy – Help me understand Canadian politics a bit here. I could never understand how Jean Charest went from leading the federal Progressive Conservative Party to leading the provincial liberal party in Quebec. He always seems a pretty straight-forward guy. What are his chances of becoming a national figure again?

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  4. Lucy Martin says:

    dbw, the events you reference took place in the 1990’s, before I moved to Canada. As such, I have no unique insight to offer – apart from what I can research after the fact.

    Perhaps it is worth backing up for a second and mentioning that political parties in Canada function differently on the provincial and federal levels.

    How so? Well, in the U.S. a democrat is a democrat in outlook and alliance – be that on the municipal, state or federal levels.

    That’s less true in Canada. Here, political parties can function differently/separately on the federal and provincial level.

    After decades of an American political mindset I’m still trying understand these differences. No doubt some of the nuances go over my head.

    Here is how Wikipedia describes one such party scenario in Quebec politics:

    “The Parti Québécois has close ties to the Bloc and shares its principal objective of independence for Quebec. The two parties have backed each other during election campaigns, and prominent members of each party often attend and speak at the other’s public events. In addition, the majority of each party’s membership holds membership in both parties. However, on an organizational level the parties are separate entities – the Bloc is not simply the federal wing of the Parti Québécois, nor the PQ simply the provincial wing of the Bloc.”

    Similarly, here is how the (provincial) Liberal party of Ontario is described in Wikipedia: “The party is ideologically aligned with the Liberal Party of Canada but the two parties are organizationally independent and have separate, though overlapping, memberships.”

    And on the federal level Wikipedia says this about Canada’s Liberal party “Over time, provincial Liberal parties in most province’s were separated from provincial wings of the federal party and in a number of cases disaffiliated.”

    Switching from federal to provincial politics (or vice versa) sometimes requires a re-evaluation of the landscape and (perhaps) a different political alignment for best results.

    And (as we see in the U.S. as well) sometimes politicians just change parties. Take Bob Rae – now the interim leader of the Liberal Party. Rae spent roughly 20 years with the NDP in federal and provincial offices.

    Also, the federal Progressive Conservative Party that Jean Charest led from 1993-98 merged with the new Conservative Party in 2003 and is no more – with the exception of a lone hold-out in the senate. But the PC party still exists on provincial levels. (Got all that?)

    I’m not positive this is what dbw was asking about. Do any readers care to take a stab at this?

    Mario, I appreciate your comments. I’m reluctant to get too far ahead of September’s inquiry board (Commission Charbonneau).

    But there certainly can be real advantages to timing elections – if potentially negative findings or headlines loom on the horizon.

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