What if they held a federal election and Quebeckers didn't care?
If you live inside the Queensway - physically or virtually - the sound and fury emanating from Parliament Hill would suggest that Canada is headed toward a spring election. If, on the other hand, you are a (dare I say?) normal person living in Quebec, you might not even care to know about it.
Nothing emanating from Ottawa has had the slightest traction in Quebec recently - not the foibles of Conservative cabinet ministers such as Bev Oda or Jason Kenney, not the grandstanding of the Official Opposition, not even the antics of the NDP's Thomas Mulcair in full force. Even the federal budget is being bested by the announcement that the Quebec Liberal government will present its own budget on Thursday. Regardless of what Finance Minister Jim Flaherty decides to do, his Quebec counterpart, Raymond Bachand, is taking no chances and beating him to the punch.
Does this mean Quebec won't matter in the next federal election? No, but it does mean Quebeckers aren't likely to be engaged by an electoral battle that - in its phony war stage - has yet to capture their attention.
And yet, much has changed since 2008. The Conservative Party has weathered myriad political storms in the midst of economic recession and recovery, but its string of alleged and actual abuses of power is beginning to look positively epic, even by Quebec standards. The federal Liberals have changed their chef, sent him wandering through Quebec's back roads, without seeming to attract many new clients on the bus. And the NDP's proverbial toe in the door seems eternally jammed. The Bloc Québécois, meanwhile, continues its daily business in the House of Commons even when most of the other MPs seem otherwise engaged.
What accounts for the insouciance of Quebec voters these days? And what will happen if a federal election is called this spring?
Here are three clues.
The end of the Conservative affair: The Conservatives have done much to undermine the good vibes of their initial flirting with francophone Quebeckers. They were successful in using that opening gambit - the wooing speeches, the showy symbolic gestures - as a way to get noticed. But after the fall of 2008 - the disastrous campaign, the controversial prorogation - the wider promise of Quebec voter support remains as elusive as ever. No amount of recovery plan money will repair what many Quebeckers perceive to be the insincerity of the Conservatives and the lacklustre image of Stephen Harper, especially now in light of the party's less than stellar record of good governance.
The Liberal brand gone bad: If any party knows about the fallout from scandal, it's the Liberal Party of Canada, which has yet to fully recover from the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery inquiry. Those Quebeckers with suspicious minds are pretty much nonplussed with the Liberal brand as a whole, especially after the commission into judicial nominations allowed Premier Jean Charest to reclaim his good name, but not his appeal to voters. Add to that the unremarkable impact of Michael Ignatieff on Quebeckers' radar, and chances are the Liberals won't be able to count on many more seats from Quebec - except for a couple of very narrow contests on the island of Montreal, the last bastion of Liberal support in the province.
The Bloc's ability to stay the course: Paradoxically, Gilles Duceppe has become the grand old man of Canadian politics, the party leader with the most years of experience in the House of Commons and the most "successful" elections under his belt - if you count success as a majority of seats in Quebec. It's true that the Bloc may have the easiest row to how in Ottawa - all Quebec, all the time - but the remarkable talents of Mr. Duceppe as a politician and his party's considerable parliamentary capacity should also be noted. Add to that the fact that many francophone voters seem all too comfortable with an "independent" voice to represent them in Ottawa, and the scene for another récolte of Bloc seats seems seem probable in the next election.
Of course, none of this means that Quebec won't be a major battlefield, with leaders in and out of buses and planes, plenty of attack ads, lots of trench warfare, and four-way party races in many ridings. But it will be interesting to observe whether the battles will move the political chessboard at all in Quebec, or whether Quebeckers will even show up on game day.
Antonia Maioni is director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.
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