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Why the NDP needs a provincial Quebec party

When Thomas Mulcair cast his advance ballot in last month's Quebec election in favour of Liberal MNA Geoffrey Kelley, onlookers were reminded of a curious gap in Quebec's political spectrum.

That the leader of the federal New Democrats would vote for a Quebec Liberal in the provincial contest may seem absurd – but, lacking a genuinely progressive, federalist alternative in la belle province, it is a practice to which commentators and citizens have grown accustomed.

It's common throughout Canada for voters to feel that they have little choice but to stomach one of the mainstream options on their ballot or risk 'throwing their vote away' by supporting alternative candidates who are bound to flop in first-past-the-post contests. This problem is perhaps most troublesome for committed federalist voters in Quebec.

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While voters in most Canadian provinces vote according to a left-right spectrum, Quebec voters must also consider the question of federalism. The separatist voter has the choice of parties that swing from the far-left, to the centre-left, to the right; Québec solidaire, the Parti Québecois and the Coalition Avenir Québec are all committed (with varying degrees of urgency) to the cause of sovereignty. Serious federalist voters, on the other hand, really have but one choice: the Liberals.

However, in the days and months after April's historic collapse of the PQ – the party's worst result since it first contested an election in 1970 – a historic turn might be taking place and a historic opportunity might be presenting itself. Given the shifting political landscape in the fallout of the Quebec election, there has never been a better time for the NDP to launch a provincial party in Quebec.

It would not be the first time that New Democrats had attempted to establish a beachhead on Quebec shores – the early nineties saw the "NDP-Quebec" run 41 candidates while garnering less than 1 per cent support in the 1994 election. But times change.

The days when sovereignty could unite progressives and conservatives in Quebec seem to be gone for now, with the attempt to bring a hard conservative like media baron Karl Péladeau under the PQ's banner epically backfiring in last month's vote.

Now, with the progressive old-guard of the Parti Québecois in decline and Péladeau seeming to prepare a bid for the leadership of that party, it is unclear where mainstream, progressive Quebeckers should find their political home. The strong mandate handed to the Liberals in April was less of an endorsement of Philippe Couillard's still scandal-ridden party than it was a repudiation of bald-faced sovereigntist posturing by the PQ.

As for the Liberals, in one of his first announcements as premier of Quebec, Philippe Couillard gave warning that a fiscal belt-tightening was on its way: "In a nutshell, we've been spending beyond our means for a long time," he said. "We have to act with decisiveness, courage and determination [...] the time for marginal or cosmetic measures has gone. It is time for difficult decisions."

Whether an austerity regime is right for Quebec at this moment is somewhat beside the point. The fact is that Mr. Couillard and his Liberals will dial back spending and programming despite their mandate having virtually nothing to do with the fiscal philosophy they now have legislative license to impose. A progressive federalist party on the ballot would have given voters a more nuanced electoral choice that would have avoided this conflation of fiscal priorities and sovereignty issues.

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If the PQ and Liberals are ruled out for left-wing federalists, the only remaining electoral option is Québec solidaire. But for committed federalists, the position of QS on sovereignty makes it no real choice. Moreover, most observers – and even some supporters – do not seriously believe that QS will ever form government.

While the way seems be opening up for a provincial NDP, QS may actually be best positioned to be the legislature's social conscience (which is, ironically, a role that's been played in Ottawa by the federal NDP since that party's inception).

But even as support for sovereignty slumps, is it realistic to think that Quebeckers could vote en masse for a provincial NDP? Well, the last federal election and its orange wave was surely a sign that Quebeckers are not inherently opposed to progressive federalist options, particularly when there is a persuasive leader at the helm who speaks from the heart.

If the NDP electoral machinery could be developed and deployed over the next four years of the newly elected and stable Liberal government, Thomas Mulcair could prove to be the last federal NDP leader to have no option but to vote for a borderline conservative provincial party. The 2011 Layton breakthrough, the looming rightward swerve of the PQ and the further decline of support for sovereignty amongst Quebeckers all point to the possibility of an orange sunrise on the Quebec horizon.

Fraser Harland and Mark Dance worked for MPs on both sides of the House of Commons with the non-partisan Parliamentary Internship Programme. Harland is currently studying law at McGill while Dance is completing an innovation fellowship at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

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