History was made this week in Quebec when the NDP won an election in which they didn’t participate. Although some claim there is a new Quebec wing of the party, no NDP candidates ran in the Quebec election. But the federal NDP had a vital stake in the outcome of Monday’s Quebec vote and, as in 2011, they came away winners on all counts.
Of course the election was a fine night for Canada as a whole. Any time the separatist option is soundly (if perhaps temporarily) defeated; any time the Parti Québécois’ Charter of Bigotry and Racism, aimed primarily at Muslim women, is soundly repudiated; any time Quebec’s fattest fat cat finds himself sitting powerlessly on the Opposition bench – such a night can only be good for Canadian democracy as a whole. And heaven knows Canadian democracy desperately needs something positive these days.
But if the election was good for Canada, it was great for the NDP.
First, with the welcome demise of any possible referendum and constitutional battle over a sovereign Quebec, the NDP no longer can be embarrassed by its foolish “50%+1” policy. Some time ago the party decided that if a Quebec referendum turned up 50% +1 for separation, Canada would begin negotiating independence. Had this actually been put to the test, the NDP would have been hammered across the Rest of Canada (ROC) for being ready to break up the country for a single vote. That scenario is now moot, and the NDP can thank their lucky stars for that. On the other hand, Quebec voters might recall this policy with some gratitude. The NDP is twice-blessed.
Second, it’s now highly unlikely that a terminally ill Bloc Québécois in Ottawa can be resurrected. With the sovereignty option down for the count (yes, perhaps only temporarily), the BQ’s very raison d’être disappears. It’s true the Bloc could once plausibly present itself as the defender of Quebec interests against ROC. Its present leaderless, anonymous rump of four MPs can make no such case.
Jack Layton’s unprecedented orange wave swept Quebec in the 2011 election at the expense of the Bloc, and a Bloc revival has always been the greatest threat to the NDP holding on to its 57 Quebec seats. No longer. The NDP will go into the 2015 federal election the easy front-runners in Quebec.
Third, there was another potential hazard facing the NDP in the next election: that pesky Justin Trudeau. Paradoxically, the victory of the Liberal Party of Quebec is a major strategic setback for the Liberal Party of Canada. Ottawa Liberals had grown almost rapturous thinking of how a re-elected PQ government would have immediately benefitted the federal party, if not the country. Mr. Trudeau would have taken his father’s threadbare old Captain Canada costume out of mothballs and presented himself ready aye ready as the voice of Canada standing foursquare against the separatists.
This was a perfectly plausible scenario. All it would have taken was a great deal of heartfelt, empty rhetoric about love of country, and no one around these days does sincere patriotism better than the Liberal leader. Yet lo and behold! The country no longer needs to be saved. The voters of Quebec have done the job themselves, at least for today.
Does this mean Mr. Trudeau can now bank on the support of the new Liberal government of Quebec? He shouldn’t hold his breath. The federal and Quebec branches of the Liberal party are separate entities, often with no love lost between them. Besides, it won't be long before Premier Philippe Couillard is making the same old demands on Ottawa as did all his predecessors. For all of the new premier’s admirable commitment to Canada, that’s the job description of all Quebec heads of government. This will not endear him to ROC. In any event, Mr. Couillard faces a host of difficult issues, not least in keeping his promises about the economy and jobs. Then there’s Liberal party corruption. And his own controversial version of the infamous Charter. His honeymoon will be short.
Finally, something significant seems to have changed within Quebec’s political culture. It appears that many young Quebecois, traditionally separatists and social democrats, voted Liberal Monday night to express their weariness with separatism and their disillusionment with the PQ’s embrace of Pierre-Karl Peladeau and neoliberalism. That’s nothing but good news for the NDP. In the 2011 federal election, many young Québécois abandoned the Bloc and joined the Layton orange wave, electing a ginormous contingent of NDP candidates. Under Tom Mulcair, those MPs, many young and inexperienced, have acquitted themselves surprisingly well. If played right – a big “if” for any political party, as Monday’s election reminded us – their appeal to younger Quebecois should be another NDP slam dunk.