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Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy
Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Flanagan and Duffy

Election Ringside, April 21: An orange game-changer in Quebec? Add to ...

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2011, 10:22 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

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Hi John,

Parlons Québéc! Given your Liberal and my Conservative background, I think we've focused too much on our two parties and missed the NDP surge in Quebec, which is the most interesting story of the campaign thus far. If the NDP is truly in first place in Quebec, as reported by CROP, that is really big news and a possible game-changer for Canadian politics. I don't think anyone saw this coming. All the talk in the first part of the campaign was about the NDP decline. So much for the perspicacity of the punditi, and all the other nattering nabobs of negativism.

Tell me why the NDP is surging in Quebec at this time. I have absolutely no idea. The only thing I can point out is that the Liberals took a run at the Bloc in 1997-2000, and then the Conservatives had their try in 2006-2008. I guess there's a pool of Bloc voters who aren't really separatists, and they're running a slow-motion beauty contest to see if any of the federalist parties suit their fancy. Both the Liberals and Conservatives ultimately failed in their bid to displace the Bloc; who knows whether the NDP will have long-term success?

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, April 21, 11:16 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Tom,

The NDP are surging in Quebec, to be sure, but also elsewhere. Still, you ask some pretty good questions about Quebec, and I'll do my best to contribute on that score. Both the Liberals in 2000 and the Conservatives in 2006 and 2008 took a run at the same voters - soft nationalists who wanted a way out of the federalist-sovereigntist political impasse. These were folks who voted for Brian Mulroney in 1984 and 1988 and came loose with the collapse of the Meech Lake accord. My sense if that the NDP is drawing much of its growth from a different group: younger, more progressive and more eager to change the terms of debate.

In that sense, it's hopeful. Quebec politics appears to be showing increasing signs of normalizing, and the NDP surge may be another one of those signs. Quebec politics has never been the same as that of the rest of Canada, or North America for that matter. The particular imperatives of la survivance have always come ahead of the left/right, or Whig/Tory, or government/market discussion that shapes politics elsewhere. Even the left/right debate in Quebec has some unique twists, such as the role of the church, or attitudes towards the U.S., which relate to Quebec's exposure towards the French-speaking, continental milieu.

Since the upheaval of the Quiet Revolution - an epoch-maker in Quebec's 400-year history - the politics of la survivance, as expressed in the existential debate over sovereignty, made Quebec's political scene even less normal than usual. Lately however, with the original revolutionaries departed and their followers mostly retired, several events indicating political normalization have begun popping up. One of them was the pro-market interventions of former premier Lucien Bouchard and others Pour un Quebec Lucide in 2005, and the counter-manifesto from the left, Pour un Quebec Solidaire. More notable was the surge of the right-of-centre ADQ in the 2007 provincial election, which put the PQ into third place. The drift of the federal BQ from a separatist force to a regional lobby group located in parliament is a third such signal. Most recently, former PQ minister François Legault has launched a new movement, Coalition Quebec, which seeks to gather all supporters of market-based reforms in the province, regardless of their past histories on the national question.

So I'd add this week's NDP surge to that list. It's been building for a while. For some time, Jack Layton and others have sensed that the fading relevance of the sovereignty issue has weakened the appeal of the Bloc, and left an opening among urban progressives. The concept was successfully put to the test in the 2007 federal by-election in Outremont, where Thomas Mulcair gathered enough progressive votes from all sides to snatch the Liberal stronghold, and hold onto it in 2008. Mr. Layton and Mr. Mulcair worked hard to widen the beachhead in the last election, and while they expanded the NDP's support, they did not break through. Now it seems that the NDP, buoyed by Mr. Layton's strong debate performance, is capitalizing on both the staleness of the Bloc's campaign and ongoing Liberal weakness as regards both the perception of the leader and the brand.

That's the optimistic scenario anyway, at least if, (a) that's what's really happening; and, (b) you think that Canada benefits from a normalized Quebec political scene.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2011, 1:35 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

Thanks, John. Very enlightening.

I've been thinking about this since my early-morning post, and I've been struck by similarities at the level of practical politics between what the NDP is doing now and what the Conservatives tried to do. In both cases, a party that appeared to be totally marginalized in Quebec committed itself to gaining ground there. The party adopted policies designed to appeal to a segment of the Quebec electorate. The leader made it a priority to improve his French, recruit good candidates, and spend lots of time in Quebec.

There was a long frustrating period of slow, almost imperceptible growth, and then a moment when the flood gates seemed to open. For the Conservatives, it was Stephen Harper's speech in Quebec City in December, 2005; for the NDP, it was Mr. Layton's performance in the recent French leaders debate. Our attention is drawn to the magic moment, but there wouldn't be same impact without all the previous groundwork. It's encouraging in the sense of showing that patient, strategic politics can work over a period of time. I think there are lessons here for a potential Liberal recovery in the West.

From: John Duffy Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2:47 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I'm right with you about patient, thoughtful work and how long it can take to pay off. Someone smart once wrote a book about it, called Waiting for the Wave. Mr. Layton has waited a long time, and now is his chance.

We'll see how well he holds up. These kinds of surges can carry parties to where they suddenly come under intense scrutiny for which they are ill-prepared. Many a wave has been stopped dead when the media applies the standards of a contender to a party that has been heretofore a mere protest vehicle. Put another way, I wonder how many Randy Whites there are in the Quebec NDP candidate list.

And while I don't know the answer to that one, I do know that the NDP appeal to Quebec is couched in very nationalist terms. Mr. Layton proposes to subordinate all language policy, including federal, to Quebec's controversial language law, Bill 101. This continues an approach that was taken in 2008, when the NDP in Parliament supported a BQ motion to that effect. Much more worrisome, Mr. Layton in the leaders' debate last week has also gone so far as to offer reopening the Constitution to accommodate Quebec demands. This will attract scrutiny, and perhaps generate some real voter concern. We'll see how Mr. Layton handles it.

Specific policies aside, the world of the NDP in Quebec is definitely a walk on the wild side for anglophones. It's not the cross-fertilization in Quebec's left-politics scene between NDP types associated with Mr. Mulcair and more overtly sovereigntist figures. It's the whole way of looking at things. To spend time, for example, examining their meeting place in provincial politics, Quebec Solidaire, is to enter the world of the European far left, a place thoroughly unfamiliar to mainstream Canadian political views. I'm not sure the NDP's political associations in Quebec aren't going to become an issue in and of themselves.

So the question here is not really going to be what an NDP government would do, so much as what kind of NDP is seeking votes across the country. Quebecois voters may be comfortable with a federal NDP that resembles Quebec Solidaire, promises to reopen the constitution and has far-out candidates. Voters in places like Burnaby, Winnipeg, Sault Ste. Marie and Halifax less so. On candidates, on policy specifics, and on the whole tenor of his offering, Mr. Layton will have to turn in a second bravura performance for the remainder of the campaign in order to keep his wave together.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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