I live in a Montreal riding that has been voting Liberal since time immemorial. Deciding who to vote for is therefore for me something of a theoretical exercise. Whatever happens in the province more broadly, you can be sure that Kathleen Weil, who served as Minister of Justice in the Charest government, will be returned to power with a hefty majority. Weil is a credible candidate, but I won’t be voting for her. Like many Quebeckers, I worry about the degree to which Philippe Couillard has managed to rid the party of the stench of corruption in the few months that he has been leader. Like many people on the Left, I don’t see him as having in any significant way arrested the rightward drift that Jean Charest imprinted upon the Liberals. And as a civil libertarian, I am not ready to forgive the Liberals (and Mme. Weil) for having enacted repressive legislation aimed at stemming the protests that gripped the province in the Spring and Summer of 2012.
The PQ has over the course of the last few months placed itself beyond the pale. They have stoked the flames of xenophobia through their so-called “Charter of Values” in ways that will take the province years to recover from, whatever the electoral fate that the party meets on April 7. The defeat of the PQ is a crucial first step toward that recovery. If I lived in a riding where voting for the Liberals increased the chances of unseating a péquiste, I would do so despite my misgivings without hesitation. But I do not live in such a riding.
That leaves me with a choice of smaller parties. I feel no affinities with the policies being put forward by the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), but I do appreciate the fact that it has attempted to define itself on the basis of something other than a constitutional position. Since the rise to power of the PQ in 1976, Quebec voters have not really been able to elect parties on the basis of their policy platforms. Federalists vote for the Liberals, and left-wing federalists have increasingly been doing so whilst holding their noses, and sovereignists vote for the PQ, regardless of whether it happens to be led by a moderate progressive like René Lévesque, or by a former Tory like Lucien Bouchard.
My hope had been that the rise of CAQ would galvanize the Left, and that a left-wing Party would emerge that would, like the CAQ, place the constitutional question on the back-burner. That has not happened. Québec Solidaire has if anything been the most unabashedly and unapologetically sovereignist party out there during this campaign. Despite the fact that Françoise David has in the course of this particularly nasty campaign often seemed like the only adult in a room full of squabbling children, her appeal to non-sovereignists is therefore limited. It is a disappointment, but not a surprise, that QS will have trouble attracting more than 10% or so of the vote.
That is a shame. Unlike the PQ, that views sovereignty as en end in itself (while backing away from it for electoral reasons during the campaign), QS clearly sees it as a means to an end. QS’s plan is not to launch a referendum on the question of sovereignty, but rather to appoint a constituent assembly that would draw up a constitution which would then be submitted to the electorate in a referendum. The QS leadership clearly hopes that that assembly would include a generous menu of social and economic rights and minority protections, among other things.
The QS leadership clearly believes that such a left-leaning “projet de société” is impossible within the Canadian federalist framework. But this is at best an open question. Whether on the basis of formal agreements with the rest of Canada, or informal administrative arrangements, Quebec possesses the policy levers to enact pretty much whatever set of social policies it wants. Jean-François Lisée himself has before taking power spoken quite rightly of the “de-Canadianization” of Quebec politics. Over the years, what happens in Ottawa has come to seem increasingly irrelevant to Quebeckers who, despite the lack of explicit constitutional recognition, have been able to conduct their politics pretty much as they have seen fit to do.
So there is a tension at the heart of the QS position that is frustrating to those of us who long for a party in Quebec that would place policies aimed at social justice at the heart of its platform. If the intention of the QS is really to hand the question of the constitutional future of Quebec over to a truly representative constituent assembly, then the conclusions that that assembly would arrive at cannot be foretold. If QS’s priorities are to social justice first, and to sovereignty only to the degree that it can be shown to be a necessary condition for the attainment and enhancement of social justice in Quebec, then it should on its own first principles transform itself into a CAQ of the left, that is a party that places policy first, and constitutional options second.
(I hasten to add, to forestall obvious objections, that the position that I am advocating does not mean plumping for federalism once and for all, either. It means that the question of Quebec’s constitutional status should for a social-democrat be a theorem rather than an axiom. Any truly inclusive social-democratic party should view Quebec as a society capable of exercising its self-determination, whether within or outside the present Canadian constitutional framework).
Not only would that position be more coherent with its social-democratic first principles, it would also allow QS to grow beyond what at present seems to be its 10% ceiling. Left-wing non-sovereignists would be attracted by a party that viewed Quebec’s constitutional future as open. (Remember that this is a province that voted in 60 NDP candidates in the last federal election). The electoral potential of the party would be opened up considerably.
But that does not seem like it is going to happen any time soon. As mentioned above, whether out of conviction or strategy, Mme. David has if anything been trying to outflank the PQ on the question of sovereignty. She and her party have in so doing placed significant obstacles in the way of the creation of a truly inclusive social-democratic party in Quebec.
Before every election, the Radio-Canada website sets up an “electoral compass”. It allows visitors to the site to answer a wide range of questions about their policy preferences, and to assign weights to each of these sets of preferences. It then organizes respondents in a space organized along two axes: the vertical axis organizes respondents according to their answers to identity-related questions. The horizontal one organizes them according to traditional left-right preferences.
Along with many people I know – and not just Anglophones, but francophones and allophones as well — I find myself squarely in the middle of the bottom-left quadrant. The site helpfully informs me that the party that best corresponds to my political preferences is the Green Party. There must be many of us down there who would dearly love to see the emergence of a viable option to occupy that space.