The next federal election will soon be upon us and there’s a growing sense that, between the Liberals and the Conservatives, who wins Quebec will win the election.
Quebec is a funny place at election time because Quebecers have a tendency to vote en masse. Parties have been known to sweep French Quebec, pocketing at least two-thirds of the province’s 75 seats. In this election, there will be 78.
The first election I covered was in 1974. Based in Montreal, I witnessed a strange phenomenon when Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals won most of the Quebec seats without needing to do much campaigning. The vote was strategic and automatic.
The Liberals swept Quebec in 1974, 1979 and 1980. But then the floor caved in and they haven’t done well in Quebec since. That is 35 years. And since that last Liberal surge in 1980, French Quebecers have continued to vote en masse, except with different partners.
In 1984 and 1988, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives took Quebec the way the Liberals had done it before them. Quebecers went from Liberal red to Tory blue without blinking. Again, the remarkable thing was how strategic the vote was, and how automatic in nature. All Progressive Conservatives had to do, it seemed, was put their name on the ballot.
With the demise of the Progressive Conservatives in the 1993 election, newcomers came to claim the throne in Quebec. The Bloc Québécois was a new party, but the scenario was exactly the same. French Quebec voted the same way in ridings across the province.
For a decade and a half, the separatist Bloc held strong in Quebec and, when it was time to bid them adieu as a political force, newcomers again replaced them, en masse. In 2011 Jack Layton’s NDP swept the province in what was called the “orange crush.” The NDP had no history in the province and seemingly came out of nowhere to win big.
For many, it was Layton’s victory. All those seats in Quebec had his name written on them and, with his untimely death soon after the vote in 2011, it is now open season in Quebec. Quebec is ripe for the picking. It has the earmarks of an epic fight with the national stakes as high as they can be.
The NDP has much of its credibility riding on those seats in Quebec. There is nothing worse in politics than to be dismissed as a fluke, an accident, or a one-shot deal. Without those 54 Quebec seats, the NDP will resume its traditional place as the third party in Parliament, far from power; and, worse, far from ever being taken seriously.
For the Liberals, there is the irony of reaching for the success Justin Trudeau’s father had in Quebec, while understanding it was also his father who killed Liberal chances in Quebec over the past 35 years.
The repatriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms were milestone achievements in English Canada, but were soundly rejected by French Quebec. Until now, French Quebecers have not forgiven or forgotten – and that is what Trudeau finds himself up against: the ghost of his father.
Stephen Harper knows the key nationally to winning the election is to break the pattern of strategic voting in French Quebec by taking 15 to 20, even 25 seats. He knows his Conservatives cannot sweep and they would never be the automatic strategic choice.
In Quebec, the Conservatives are seen as too right wing, too hard on crime, too easy on Israel, too English and too western. And, yet, they hope they can win up to a third of the seats.
The prime minister will make the case that Quebecers are not as left leaning as Quebec’s journalists and academics, which explains his recent scathing attack on Radio-Canada’s journalists who, he said, “hate” conservative values.
He will seek out conservative-minded people in Quebec who don’t advertise or advocate their conservatism and hope there are enough of them to help him turn the corner.
Historic voting patterns are hard to break. But, without Jack Layton and with the ghost of Pierre Trudeau, he may have a chance.