Throughout the Quebec election, Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson and La Presse editor-in-chief André Pratte will engage in an online discussion on the issues arising in the campaign. Today they discuss how the National Assembly would handle a minority government.
John: Hello, André. Last week I asked you who the CAQ might support if the Quebec election results in a minority government. You suggested they would probably prop up the Liberals, who are closest to them ideologically. Poll after poll now shows an increasing possibility of the Parti Québécois winning, but falling short of a majority government. So let's speculate. If we do get a minority Parliament with the PQ winning the most seats, what do you think happens next?
André: OK, John, let's speculate. Our latest poll shows the PQ ahead, but with an unusually large number of undecideds (19 per cent). Presumably, more and more Liberals are wondering what they should do to stop the PQ: vote for their traditional party or for the new Coalition Avenir Québec, which seems to get stronger by the day amongst French-speaking voters, who make up 80 per cent of the province's population.
What happens on Sept. 5 if the PQ wins the most seats but not enough to form a majority government? I suspect both the Péquistes and the Liberals will try to convince the CAQ to form some kind of alliance with them. Since they would have fewer seats than the separatists, the Liberals would have to convince the Lieutenant Governor that they could enjoy the National Assembly's support for more than a few weeks. That would entail a formal agreement with the CAQ: either a coalition or, more probably, an arrangement similar to the Peterson-Rae one in Ontario of 1985.
However, even if they are ideologically closer to the Liberals, the "Caquistes" might hesitate to support a minority Liberal government, the Liberals being very unpopular and at risk of being tarnished by the on-going Charbonneau Inquiry on corruption.
The Parti Québécois could simply try to gather a majority in the Assembly on a case-by-case basis. Or it could negotiate some kind of deal with the CAQ. The issue then becomes: Will the CAQ want to be part of a formal alliance with the PQ, or will it prefer to remain free to vote as it wishes on all the new government's initiatives? After all, with the next election in mind, it will want to position itself as the logical alternative to the separatists.
The next few days may be crucial: Starting Sunday night, there will be four consecutive leaders' debates, including three one-on-ones (Charest-Marois, Charest-Legault, Marois-Legault). As I wrote earlier, our latest poll shows at least one voter in five is undecided. Therefore, John, we may have the opportunity to speculate on other, as of yet unforeseen scenarios…
John: I agree completely with this, Andre. We've had a lot of experience up here in Ottawa with minority governments in recent years, and one thing that emerged was an unwritten agreement – because, as you know, much of our Constitution is unwritten – that whoever wins the most seats in an election has the right to form a government and meet the House.
But I also think you're bang-on about 1985, when the Progressive Conservatives won the most seats in the Ontario election, but the Liberals came a very close second, and actually won the popular vote. So Liberal Leader David Peterson and NDP Leader Bob Rae signed a two-year accord. They defeated the Tories on the throne speech and went to the Lieutenant Governor with their agreement. Mr. Peterson, as you know, became premier with NDP support, and ended up winning a majority government two years later.
Last question, and then I'll let you get on with your day. If the PQ do win, but need the support of the CAQ, how on earth would they be able to govern? Satisfying their own, always-restless, base while winning support for a budget and other bills from the CAQ would tax the skills of the most brilliant politician. Do you think Ms. Marois would be up to the job?
André: I have no doubt about Ms Marois' abilities. After all, she did succeed in running the Parti Québécois through some rough waters. But, you are right, bridging the ideological gap between her party and the CAQ would not be easy, especially since the péquistes will want her to do whatever is necessary to promote separation and prepare a referendum.
Mr. Legault's task will be even more difficult, I suspect. His is a very young party, a still-loose coalition of separatists and federalists, politicians from the center-left and from the right. Some of those still think independence is a solution; others have always fought separation.
How will the leader succeed in having those people agree on crucial votes that, in a minority situation, come daily? The weeks and months following this election could be far more exciting than the campaign itself.
John: Either way, it appears the country will be focused on Quebec politics for some time to come. Thanks again for this, André. Let's chat next week after the leaders' debates.