Is the Quebec Liberal Party Doomed?
Sliding in the polls and low on cash, the party that helped modernize Quebec is on the cusp of another massive political defeat.
It was the perfect time for a comeback.
After trailing badly in the polls throughout the 2018 campaign, Parti Québécois leader Jean-François Lisée had started to turn things around; criss-crossing the province with a smile on his face, a jump in his step and a witty retort for every challenging question.
But with the election just a few weeks away, he needed to make something dramatic happen. Another third place finish behind the Liberals and surging Coalition Avenir Québec would spell disaster for the PQ. Ahead of the final leaders debate, his staff waited anxiously, knowing that — with the right performance by their boss — they just might be able to break through.
“Ten minutes before the debate, I was watching the TV coverage and they were singing Lisée’s praises,” said Dominic Vallières, a senior PQ staffer in 2018. “He had surprised people in the first debate and he ran a good, disciplined campaign. If he could put together the performance of his life, there just might be some hope.”
That hope was crushed within the first few minutes of the debate.
In his opening remarks, Lisée let loose an awkward attack against his Québec Solidaire opponent Manon Massé. He accused her party of being controlled by a union boss who operated from the shadows, depicting Massé as merely a pawn to some mysterious figure.
If he had hoped to tank Québec Solidaire and reap the benefits, Lisée’s plan failed spectacularly. It was a confusing gambit at best and at worst it sounded like he’d lost his marbles.
“I couldn’t keep watching after that, I knew it was over,” Vallières said. “So I changed channels to Thursday Night Football. I believe it was the Cleveland Browns versus the New York Jets.”
Two weeks later, the PQ suffered its worst political defeat in decades, losing official party status and dropping to third opposition in the National Assembly. This was one of the great North American political movements, a party that shaped modern Quebec and came within a few thousand votes of seceding from Canada in 1995.
Of course, it would be silly to suggest their fate was sealed by a debate performance so bad it made the New York Jets look good. The decline of the PQ was decades in the making. After all, the party hadn’t won a majority government since 1998 and lost four of the five elections leading up to 2018. Without the possibility of another referendum on the horizon, the PQ no longer had a cause to unify its left and right flanks.
Fast forward four years and there’s a real possibility the PQ could be wiped off the map in this fall’s election. Former stalwarts like Bernard Drainville and Catherine St-Hilaire are now candidates for the CAQ and Québec Solidaire has essentially raided the PQ’s youth wing.
But that’s not the real story here. This time around, Vallières sees his old archrivals — the Quebec Liberal Party — going down the same path he traveled in 2018.
Trailing the CAQ 26 points in the polls, the Liberals are in disarray. You could point to a recent string of gaffes to help explain their predicament. Leader Dominique Anglade alienated the party’s anglophone base last spring by supporting a new language law that gives the government sweeping powers to police the use of English in hospitals and private email correspondence of businesses.
Anglade also appeared to play both sides of the debate over the CAQ’s religious symbols ban, offering fierce opposition to Bill 21 during interviews in English while grudgingly accepting the law when facing questions from francophone reporters.
Smelling blood in the water, nascent political parties have taken a run at the Liberal base.
Some polls have the Parti Conservateur du Québec, which hasn't won a single seat in the National Assembly, leading the Liberals by a few points. Smaller parties like the newly created Parti Canadien du Québec and Bloc Montréal may not make much of an impact next fall but they’re poised to gnaw some of the electorate away from the Liberals.
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And then there is the pandemic. With the CAQ enjoying an unprecedented amount of media coverage since the beginning of COVID-19, Anglade has struggled to cut through the noise.
Perhaps the most alarming sign that voters have little enthusiasm for the Liberals: the party’s once dominant fundraising arm is in shambles. Over the first seven months of this year — an election year — the Liberals raised a paltry $265,000. That places them dead last among Quebec’s major political parties, trailing the CAQ ($780,000), the PQ ($595,000), the Parti Conservateur du Québec ($482,000) and Québec Solidaire ($488,000).
For Vallières, the Liberals’ fortunes appear intertwined with the PQ’s.
“I mean what is the Liberal party without the threat of a PQ majority?” said Vallières, now a political columnist and consultant. “They lost their nemesis. Do you really need Sherlock Holmes if you don’t have Professor Moriarty? It takes away a huge part of their argument, historically, which was that only the Liberals can keep Quebec inside of Canada.
“I think when you look at a lot of their recent struggles, they’re still trying to figure their identity out in a post-referendum society.”
Anglade’s bungling of Bill 96, the CAQ’s controversial language law, is a prime example. When the bill was first introduced last spring, the Liberal leader proposed amendments to push it further. Without consulting Quebec’s post secondary institutions, Anglade suggested anglophones and allophones attending English Cégeps be required to take three additional French classes.
It seemed like a way Anglade could appeal to Francophone voters — a segment of the electorate that cost the Liberals the 2018 election — without forcing too big a compromise from anglos who form the Liberal base. She was wrong.
Beyond the logistical nightmare of transforming curriculum without first consulting experts, the amendment appeared to violate Constitutional protections of minority language rights. It was panned by the anglophone community and Anglade found herself trying to reverse course to stop the party’s slide in the polls.
“In a matter of months, the Liberals went from trying to charm francophones to desperately trying not to piss off anglophones anymore than they already had,” Vallières said. “I don’t know if she’ll be entirely forgiven for Bill 96 and that’s bad news for the Liberals. If they don’t get it together, they could lose seats in Laval, Gatineau and even a fortress or two in Montreal.”
Given that the Liberals hold just 27 of 125 seats in the National Assembly, Anglade doesn’t have much room to manoeuvre. The Liberals are trapped in an identity crisis of their own making, trying desperately to rebrand themselves in a political climate they no longer fit into, according to Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
“The Liberals are trying to rebrand as a centre left party but it doesn’t feel sincere,” said Béland. “This is the same government that hollowed out the healthcare system with its austerity reforms, it’s the same government whose policies sent thousands of police officers to face off with student protesters in 2012. And we’re not even talking about their less than stellar record on climate change. They were in power a long time and they made a lot of enemies on the left — students, trade unions, environmentalists, healthcare workers.
“They see their future on the left because the CAQ has taken control of the political centre. But they’re still figuring out what that looks like. Meanwhile, on the left — which is dominated by Québec Solidaire — you’re seeing hints that they’re moving closer to the centre, creating a sort of Quebec equivalent to the New Democratic Party. All this jostling is basically a race to see who can be the official opposition. Because right now, it looks as though the CAQ will hold a firm grip on power for at least four and possibly eight more years.”
Voters may be willing to give the CAQ a mulligan for its abysmal handling of COVID-19’s first wave because they inherited a healthcare system that had been gutted by successive Liberal governments. After all, there were countless warnings about the awful state of Quebec’s long term care facilities decades before they became they epicentre of the province’s massive COVID-19 death toll.
“The Liberals are at least partially responsible for many of the factors that made Quebec the most deadly province during the first wave,” Béland said. “And often, the sovereigntist/federalist battles won by the Liberals hide larger failures of their government.”
The Liberal government of Philippe Couillard may have balanced budgets and gifted the CAQ with one of Canada’s strongest economies but it also gave them an education system with the worst dropout rate of any province and one whose teachers earned far less than their counterparts in Ontario and other provinces.
And we haven’t even delved into the culture of graft, crony capitalism and corruption that became synonymous with the party through the reign of Jean Charest. It may take the Liberals another election cycle or two to wash that stench off.
Of course, it isn’t merely Liberal fatigue that led to the CAQ’s dominance in the polls.
Premier François Legault has badly outmanoeuvred the PQ and the Liberals at every turn. Legault’s party may have run on fiscal conservatism but they’ve spent massively while in office, securing $6 billion from Ottawa to expand subsidized childcare, investing in massive infrastructure projects and, when all else failed, writing $500 cheques for millions of Quebecers.
Meanwhile, the CAQ has outflanked its péquiste rivals on identity issues, adopting a watered down version of the PQ’s Charter of Values with its Bill 21 religious symbols ban, presenting themselves as champions of the French language with Bill 96 and picking fight after fight with Ottawa.
“They sort of get to have it both ways,” said Béland. “On the one hand, they’re putting forward a sort of conservative nationalism that appeals to older francophone voters outside of Montreal. On the other, their deficit spending makes them palatable to more moderate voters in the suburbs. It’s hard to beat that coalition if you’re the Liberals.”
The Liberal party hasn’t returned The Rover’s requests for comment but one insider offered to chat with me on background.
“I see a shift in the party towards progressive ideas and that’s encouraging to me,” said the party insider. “Anglade has been bold on climate change, she’s out there talking to young families, which we lost in 2018 because of austerity budgets and healthcare cuts. I think there’s an honest pivot underway.”
He pointed to the first plank in the Liberals’ 2022 platform, which calls for nationalizing the production of “clean” hydrogen energy. A Liberal government would create a crown corporation called Hydrogène Québec, invest billions in green energy research and increase the royalty that corporations pay for using Quebec’s water by a factor of six.
These goals, he said, harken back to the heady days of the Quiet Revolution, when a fiery young Liberal called René Levesque nationalized hydroelectricity — transforming Quebec’s economy and its relationship to First Nations.
“Our party went too far in 2014, we need to get back to basics; building an economy to pay for generous social programs,” the insider said. “On that note, Anglade is working really hard to get Quebecers to know her, to restore trust and get our new vision out there. But it’s not easy. The Québecor Media empire is in lockstep with the CAQ’s identity politics and they’ve given them an easy ride these past few years. François Legault was on TV every day at the height of the pandemic, talking directly to Quebecers and facing little in the way of criticism.”
He added that the Liberals wouldn’t be able to recruit a star candidate like Desiree McGraw — a Harvard-educated academic who co-founded the Al-Gore’s Climate Project in Canada — to run in the next election if there wasn't some optimism for the party’s future.
“I’m optimistic about our ideas. Where I'm worried is that the political landscape in Quebec is shifting,” he said. “You have the rise of a new conservative party whose members espouse conspiracy theories, a CAQ government that shifts its policy based on whatever their polling tells them and is literally writing $500 cheques to everyone. It’s a lot to contend with.
“The old way of doing politics, where you had membership donating every year, a strong youth wing and people who lived and died by the party, I just don’t think that’s how politics are in 2022. Québec Solidaire and the PQ have strong militant base but the CAQ barely has membership and still they’re up big in the polls. We’re not going to return to power in four years just because we’re the Liberals. We have to get out there and earn it.”
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it is twofold.
First, after surpassing the Liberals in the polls last spring, the Parti Conservateur du Québec are beginning to plateau. With each new conspiracy theory espousing candidate introduced by party leader Éric Duhaime — and there are many — the Conservateurs seem less fitted for government than reality television (although these days, who can tell the difference).
Second, the CAQ have major vulnerabilities and, four years into their mandate, they can’t just blame a broken healthcare system or failing schools on the Liberals. It’s their province now. Scapegoating Justin Trudeau, immigrants, Muslims and anglophones will only work for so long.
Eventually they’ll have to run on their record and, so far, it’s not stellar. Quebec’s emergency rooms are so overloaded they’re shutting down, the CAQ’s messaging on COVID-19 has been all over the place, the housing crisis (which the CAQ refuses to call a crisis) is putting thousands of families on the brink of insolvency and “negligent” would be a generous way to describe the government’s approach to climate change.
Which brings me back to 2018 and Jean-François Lisée’s ill-fated last campaign.
I was with the PQ leader as his world came crashing down on election night. The party had rented a massive banquet hall downtown and they’d cued up their sound system to play a victory song every time a PQ candidate was elected.
There wasn’t much music that night.
I couldn’t help but share some of the grief that the diehards felt. Quebec as we know it was shaped by the PQ and their Liberal nemeses. We may whine about crumbling highways and endless scandals but Quebec is still a wonderful place to live — daycares are subsidized, higher education costs half would it would in Ontario and there’s something about living in French that makes everything feel a bit more… romantic? It’s hard to explain.
On the flipside, political parties have to adapt to changing times and the PQ/Liberal dynamic hasn’t changed much since the 1990s. It was, in part, to break the stagnant politics of a two-party system that François Legault left the PQ to form the CAQ in 2011. Say what you will about the man but he had the foresight to see beyond the next election cycle.
“The Liberals used and re-used the same script for years but they’re in a new play now,” said Béland. “Can they find their role in time for the next election? Almost certainly not. But I wouldn’t write them off completely.”
Great piece. Most people around me can’t even name the Liberal leader. I think we may witness what we saw in Ontario before they recover (if ever).