After Philippe Couillard, the next Liberal premier of Quebec, the happiest man in Canada Monday night had to be Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
What a relief for him. Before the Quebec election campaign began, it appeared the Parti Québécois government would be re-elected, likely with a majority.
Make no mistake, a victorious PQ would have held a referendum, and it would have counted on Mr. Harper’s unpopularity in Quebec to help the party win it. Mr. Harper would have been confronted with the hardest test of any prime minister: holding the country together. And he would have been playing with a very weak hand. Wisely, Mr. Harper stayed completely out of the campaign.
Mr. Harper has a strong federalist premier in Mr. Couillard to work with and no threat of a referendum. Better still, the PQ separatists were routed, dramatically, deservedly and damningly.
The PQ defeat was so enormous that it will provoke explosions of internal party recrimination, followed by years of existential navel-gazing, especially since the PQ had showered money all over Quebec to prepare the voters for an election it expected to win, only to fail, and spectacularly. Its leader, Pauline Marois, will be thrown to the PQ wolves, the only question being when, soon or sooner.
The PQ ran on a lie – that it would not hold a referendum when in fact it had been planning one – and an odious charter of values that divided the province. The PQ conducted a terrible campaign from the moment Ms. Marois opened her mouth to announce the election. When students of how not to run an election campaign turn to their textbooks, the PQ campaign of 2014 will be Chapter One.
But beyond the tactical errors of the campaign, the PQ completely misjudged the province it hoped to make a country. And so did the pundits whose not-so-learned commentaries followed the pollsters into underestimating Liberal strength. Indeed, the pollsters and their media followers had a night almost as terrible as the PQ.
Quebeckers smelled a rat that the PQ was not telling them the truth. The PQ had lived within the prison of its own illusions: that Quebeckers wanted independence, when every indication demonstrated the contrary. And the PQ further believed it could win by playing identity politics, stirring up fears of linguistic slippage and cultural erosion of the francophone reality. Happily, when the votes were counted, it appeared that the better angels of Quebeckers’ nature prevailed.
When it became clear, courtesy of the entry into the campaign of its star candidate, media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau, that a referendum would take place if the PQ won, whatever hopes the party harboured smashed against the overwhelming desire of Quebeckers not to live through another referendum.
The Liberals seized on Mr. Péladeau’s truthfulness and warned that a referendum would follow a PQ victory. Everywhere he travelled, Mr. Couillard reminded Quebeckers of this elementary fact. His campaign suddenly was sent aloft by the referendum becoming a central issue.
His party, not being obsessed by existential questions, campaigned on an effective slogan “We’ll work on real things,” such as jobs, the economy and health care, about which Mr. Couillard knows a lot, as a neurosurgeon and a former health minister. That the Liberal platform contains various costing improbabilities is obvious, but then which political party’s platform does not?
Mr. Couillard has said as premier he will “defend Quebec’s interests,” which he obviously will do. It remains to be seen whether he, a committed federalist with no chip on his shoulder, will be forced into the kind of faux nationalist battles with the federal government that other Liberal premiers have felt obliged to start. Such battles are not in his nature, nor were they in his campaign, but Quebec’s political culture often pushes even federalist premiers into starting controversies with Ottawa or into being seen to stand up to the federal government.
Mr. Couillard shouldn’t have too much trouble getting along with Mr. Harper who, on most files but not all, prefers to keep the federal government out of areas of provincial jurisdiction.
Mr. Couillard’s federalist preferences are not conditional; he believes in Canada, and in Quebec’s strong place within it. He now has four years with a solid majority and his political opponents vanquished to work for his province and his country.