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McGill's Antonia Maioni
McGill's Antonia Maioni

Antonia Maioni

Who will speak for Quebec? Add to ...

Tuesday is Valentine’s Day, but there’s more than love in the air in Quebec. It will also be opening day at the National Assembly and, although Jean Charest’s government has more than a year left on the clock, everyone seems to be gearing up for an early election.

The Premier’s critics say he has no choice, since things are unlikely to improve, although Mr. Charest ruled out a spring vote on Thursday. His Liberals have spent the past 18 months in political limbo, amid allegations of corruption and low public confidence in the Premier.

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After months of infighting that relegated the sovereignty issue to the back burner (if not the freezer), the Parti Québécois isn’t in much better shape.

And now there’s the Coalition Avenir Québec – a political medley of old and new faces drawn from right and left, federalists and sovereigntists. The party will enter its first election under the leadership of former PQ cabinet minister François Legault, a competent manager and a seasoned politician but hardly a charismatic rassembleur.

Although the polls suggest the CAQ enjoys considerable support, it may have peaked too soon. Mr. Legault’s mantra of on verra (we’ll see) is hardly an engaging call to arms, and the new slogan, on doit faire mieux (we must do better), isn’t much more inspiring. As the CAQ becomes less of an abstraction, it will face the challenge of turning a small band of refugees from the Action Démocratique du Québec’s ashes and a few PQ floor-crossers into a majority government.

All three parties will be using their time in the National Assembly to set the tone. Several campaign issues are already evident, including the fundamental question of Quebec’s economic future, the persistent tension between the “re-engineering” of the state and the province’s social contract, and the unfinished business of cleaning up the mess in the construction industry.

Economic leadership is a crucial element for any Quebec government, but no less important is the fundamental role of speaking for Quebeckers and defending their interests in the federation. In fact, with the Bloc Québécois almost vanished from the House of Commons and the relative absence of Quebec voices in the halls of federal power, this role will become even more important at the provincial level. Indeed, the key issue in this election may well be who can stand up for Quebec against Stephen Harper. Quebeckers may be politically hard to read these days, but their antipathy toward the Ottawa Conservatives is palpable and growing.

On this question, Mr. Legault and the CAQ have very little traction, and even less street cred. At its core, theirs is an inward-looking party, focused on economic and social policy in Quebec with a platform that explicitly refuses to mention constitutional issues and carries no mention of Ottawa or federalism. But Quebec does not exist in a bubble, and Mr. Legault’s opponents are hoping to remind voters of this.

PQ Leader Pauline Marois has already sounded the alarm, calling Mr. Harper the antithesis of Quebec values: a monarchist, militarist, right-wing social conservative. Her solution: a PQ government that can fight for Quebec “as if it were a country” against the Conservative tide.

Mr. Charest knows how to use the federalism card to his advantage. He has been relentless in opposing Mr. Harper’s gun-control and pension reforms. As a leader among his peers, last month’s Council of the Federation meeting showcased how he can act as best defender of Quebec’s interests in terms of collaborative federalism with the other premiers.

Antonia Maioni is an associate professor of political science at McGill University.

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