In this installment of McMillan Vantage’s regular spotlight on the federal election, Vantage Senior Consultant Jonathan Kalles looks at Quebec politics, the major swings, the issues and the close races:
Quebec is an enigma to many Canadians, including in the way it votes. The province’s support has swung significantly over the past four elections; the 2019 vote was the first time since 2008 that the same party won a plurality of seats in back-to-back elections, and this despite the fact that the winning Liberals lost five seats. (And it should be noted that in the last election, the Bloc Québécois went from 10 to 32 seats and the NDP from 16 to 1.)
The 2011 election and the NDP’s orange wave can probably be traced to a steady decline in Liberal support in Quebec over the previous decade, the lack of a grievance issue for the Bloc, and most importantly, a great performance by NDP Leader Jack Layton on Quebec’s super popular Sunday night talk show Tout le monde en parle. Layton’s ease in French, his friendly demeanor and his openness to Quebec identity and support for progressive policies catapulted the NDP to official opposition status. Prior to 2011, the NDP had only elected one federal MP in Quebec in its entire history.
In 2015, the unexpected combination of the niqab issue, combined with an “anyone but Harper” priority for voters, lifted the Liberals past the NDP into first place. Quebecers were strongly opposed to allowing Muslim women to wear a face covering while voting. While NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau held the same position, Mulcair’s lead in the polls heading into the campaign focussed Quebec voters’ wrath on him, and voters then coalesced their support behind a Liberal wave.
The main wedge issue in 2019 was the Quebec government’s passing of Bill 21, which prohibits civil servants in a limited number of positions of authority (judges, police, prison guards, teachers) from wearing religious symbols. Premier François Legault challenged federal party leaders to commit to not challenge the law in court, and new Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet jumped on this opening to portray all other parties as thumbing their noses at the will of the majority of Quebecers. This issue, combined with the free fall of the NDP in Quebec and Quebecers discomfort with Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s social conservative positions, in particular on women’s rights, abortion and LGBTQ rights, led to a surge in support for the Bloc, in particular away from the NDP and Conservatives.
So why do we see such major swings, and what can we look for this time around?
The majority of Quebecers do not have any particular partisan loyalty, and their voting choices in provincial elections do little to clarify their federal preference (other than that almost all Parti Québécois voters support the Bloc). However, there remain core areas of support in certain regions of Quebec: the Liberals on the island of Montreal, the Conservatives in Quebec City and in certain ridings southeast and southwest of Quebec City, and the Bloc in some rural and suburban Montreal ridings. The NDP seems to have lost any serious support across the province and, unless there’s a major change (who could have predicted the original orange wave), they may have trouble even keeping the one seat they still have.
So what should we look for in those Quebec ridings that will make the difference?
The parties will all try to exhibit a strong relationship with the Legault government, which is currently the most popular government in Canada. The Liberals have worked hard to settle many outstanding issues and areas of disagreement with the CAQ government, including with proposed legislation on official languages, funding for daycares and housing, joint investments in the aerospace industry and electric buses and trucks, massive investments in infrastructure projects and a common view on vaccines and vaccines passports.
The Bloc will attack the Liberals for not having agreed to Legault’s demand for a major increase in health care transfer payments. The Conservatives will say that they support Legault’s demand for federal support for a third link tunnel project between Quebec City and Levis while other parties do not.
As the campaign accelerates, it remains unclear what the so-called wedge issue will be this time around, or if there will be one at all. The latter would be to the Liberal’s advantage. Will the electorate be swayed again this year by the Bloc’s often-effective grievances strategy against Ottawa, this time focused on language issues and health care transfers? Will the Conservatives be able to carve out a clear line of attack against the Liberals or the Bloc, considering their positions on the environment, culture, vaccines and a possible reappearance of social conservative issues? Neither look likely in the first week.
Meanwhile, there remain a number of ridings that were very close in 2019. Any small move by the electorate in the direction of any party may make the difference.
Liberal Ministers Jean-Yves Duclos (Quebec) and Diane Lebouthillier (Gaspésie–Les Îles-de-la-Madeleine), along with Liberal MP Soraya Martinez-Ferrada (Hochelaga) and Conservative MP and Quebec Lieutenant Richard Martel (Chicoutimi-Le Fjord) all won their seats by less than 1,000 votes.
In Trois-Rivières, former mayor Yves Lévesque finished third for the Conservatives by exactly 2,000 votes, and he is running again in an open seat that appears anyone’s to win. Three-way races like this one may be more common if the Conservatives are able to gain any positive momentum in the province, which would come almost exclusively at the expense of the Bloc. In that scenario, it may be the Liberals that benefit the most. Alternatively, if the Conservatives continue to flounder, the Bloc may be strengthened in the seats that they barely lost to the Liberals.