PQ victory a much-needed change for Quebec, despite referendum whispers

After nine years of Jean Charest, Quebec needed a change. Despite a separatist agenda, the Parti Quebecois should …On Sept. 4, the Parti Quebecois won the Quebec provincial election, permitting them to form the next government.

And, lo, the sky is still intact.

During the run up to the election, a substantial portion of the Anglophone media/commentariat in Quebec and the rest of Canada shrieked at the fairy tale "Chicken Little" level.  PQ leader Pauline Marois could have been Cruella de Vil poised to devour all of the puppies in Westmount rather than projecting a rather frumpy, elderly aunt appearance. Or perhaps she was only the benign mask behind which the pure laine were gathering for vengeance over the 1759 "conquest"?  This viewing-with-alarm (really Apocalypse tomorrow) was sufficiently over-the-top to generate a bit of amused skepticism from foreign observers (at least in Washington) who had seen it all before.

And we remember the comment attributed to Rene Levesque, the first PQ Quebec premier, "OK, Everybody take a Valium."

In reality, the PQ victory — or at least a Liberal defeat — was all but preordained.  After nine years, the shelf life of the Liberal government had expired.  Indeed, to govern is to make choices — and to make choices is to alienate. Make enough governing decisions and you alienate sufficient of the citizenry to eventually defeat you. Taxes, spending, corruption — the Liberals had run out of answers. And Charest after 26 years in elected office was no longer "Captain Canada" but closer to walking road-kill when calling a high-risk election a year before it was necessary. His defeat in his own riding was only the final shovel into the gravesite.

[ David Kilgour: PQ government may be new, but it won't be effective ]

But perhaps he knew what is coming from the Charbonneau commission? Or sensed the prospect of returning university students and the ongoing fight over Bill78 would be more damaging than a summer election campaign?

In fact, Charest's ostensibly precipitous action may well have saved the Liberals from later catastrophe. In the new minority government, they stand a very strong second (winning 50 of 125 seats) and ended less than one percentage point behind the PQ in the popular vote. The spoiler for both Liberals and PQ is emergence of the Coalition Avenir Quebec with 19 seats and 27 per cent of the vote.  CAQ reminds one of the Action Democratique du Quebec with Francois Legault an older, less charismatic but more experienced edition of Mario Dumont. (And indeed, the CAQ swallowed the shards of the ADQ in the process of creating what appears to be a center-right party).

The PQ's minority government has the obvious weakness of being open to defeat at any instance. It has the strength, however, of putting forward modestly challenging proposals and daring the opposition to precipitate an election by voting them down — a decision on which both CAQ and Liberals would have to agree.  And the Liberals, facing a leadership campaign with no obvious Charest successor, would hardly want to pull the plug in the near term. And Legault, whose experience is as a PQ minister, does not have the leadership expertise sufficient to thwart a PQ program.

So what rabbits will Marois set loose? She already has announced cancellation of university tuition increases and the highly questionable Bill 78, presumably assuring near term peace-on-the-streets. Additionally, she can advance new restrictions on Anglophone language rights (will even the Liberals defend them?) leaving it to juridical confrontation to determine outcomes. And the government of Canada can expect more one-in-the-eye demands for greater provincial control of current federal powers.

Nevertheless, the PQ victory gives Quebec a necessary change-of-pace. It is a legitimate democratic political party, having governed twice previously. As the province's first woman premier, Marois has an opportunity to refute old shibboleths regarding female leadership competence — or not. The Liberals (just as at the national level) need time to revive/revitalize and find fresh leadership. And the CAQ needs time to determine whether it can transform a movement into an organized political structure (with ADQ's failure to do so a cogent lesson).

The joker in the deck, of course, is PQ commitment to Quebec sovereignty. Its original progenitors and persistent proponents sense their last chance glimmering. They want another referendum — but the polls now say "odds against."  A referendum now would not be "third time lucky" but "three strikes and you're out."

Canada will have the opportunity to watch Marois seek to transform the politico-economic sow's ear she has inherited into a silk purse, justifying a sovereignty referendum.

Just as the United States must periodically face its visible minority challenges, national unity remains the existential challenge for Canada.  The music is playing again; it is time to face it.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)