Pauline Marois at the annual conference of the Union of Municipalities of Quebec (photo courtesy the Parti Quebecois via Flickr)

What just happened in Quebec?

Christopher Cochrane explains resounding defeat of Parti Quebecois

While most political analysts gave the Liberals a slight lead in the last few weeks of the Quebec election race, few could have anticipated the extent of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) defeat. Winning only 25.4% of the popular vote, compared to the Liberals’ 41.5%, this is the PQ’s worst election outcome in more than 40 years.

Writer Jelena Damjanovic asked Christopher Cochrane, assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Toronto and the University of Toronto-Scarborough (UTSC), about the meaning of the Quebec election results.

What are the reasons for PQ’s crushing defeat in the 2014 Quebec elections?

The PQ spent a great deal of effort of the past decades building a party around support for labour unions, welfare state policies, students, and a unity of all Quebecers around the french language and the territory of Quebec. The party invested considerable effort to distance itself from the ideas that Jacques Parizeau articulated in his concession speech after the 1995 referendum, where he noted that “we” – i.e., native Quebecers – supported sovereignty, but that “money and the ethnic vote” had cost them the referendum. The kind of Quebec nationalism that many leaders of the sovereignty movement articulated, including none other than Rene Levesque, was very different than the nationalism in Parizeau’s speech. It was a territorial nationalism and a linguistic identity – things that people can opt into – rather than an ethnic nationalism, which is something that people cannot opt into. 

The rigidity of the PQ’s new "Secular Charter," which went far beyond what was recommended, for example, by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on reasonable accommodation, damaged the PQ’s reputation for openness to minorities in Quebec. To be fair, there is a strong element of secularism behind the PQ’s Charter – and the party’s official line was tightly focused on this element. But there is also an element of absurdity and xenophobia behind support for the Charter, and both of these came to the fore during the campaign.

The Charter may have attracted some new support for the PQ, but it also turned off some traditional PQ loyalists, including important labour groups in the province. To make matters worse, the party’s decision to enlist a controversial business mogul, Pierre Karl Peladeau, and Marois’ last minute musings about cutting taxes, are further examples of a hard turn away from the traditional support base of the PQ. Pauline Marois tried to build a new coalition for a majority government. In the process, she appears to have alienated many of the PQ supporters that were strong on sovereignty but repelled by these new PQ policies, and to have attracted for a short time some softer supporters that were supportive of these new policies but soft on sovereignty.

The coalition exploded when all of these issues were mixed together in the campaign. Political parties cannot solidify new coalitions over night. By moving away from the Party’s traditional coalition, the PQ set itself up for the electoral meltdown that it experienced over the past few weeks. 

How were the Liberals under Couillard able to overcome corruption revelations from only 18 months ago to reach such a significant victory?

There is an old saying that governments do not get voted in; they get voted out. That appears to be the case in Quebec. Couillard ran a disciplined and safe campaign. He will have to be careful on a number of fronts if he hopes to avoid bringing onto his new government the scandals that continue to plague his party from the Charest era. 

What do you expect will happen now to the PQ legislation, popular among francophones, to create a secular values charter?

I suspect that the Liberals will craft a Charter that is more in line with what the Bouchard-Taylor commission recommended in 2008. This would restrict, for example, the wearing of religious symbols by key authority figures (judges, police officers, crown prosecutors, and so on), but not among rank-and-file public servants like teachers, day-care workers, and doctors. The Bouchard-Taylor Commission also includes suggestions for avoiding the kinds of problems that the PQ Charter claimed to be aimed at, including protections for gender equality and against unreasonable requests for accommodation on religious grounds.

The Bouchard-Taylor commission also recommended removing the large crucifix that sits above the Speaker’s chair in the Quebec National Assembly. As many pointed out, by contrast, the PQ’s Charter would have kept the large crucifix in the legislature while banning the wearing of hijabs among daycare workers. It was this kind of discrepancy that fueled the allegations of xenophobia that were leveled against the PQ’s Charter. The Liberals have indicated that they will not remove the crucifix, but it will be interesting to see how they can enact a neutral and reasonable policy of state secularism that does not include removing a crucifix from the chamber of the National Assembly. 

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