For a few days last week, it felt like the most powerful political actor in the federal election campaign was not Justin Trudeau or Erin O’Toole, but Quebec Premier François Legault.
With help from Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, Mr. Legault had the Liberal and Conservative leaders eating out of his hand after the moderator of Thursday’s English-language leaders’ debate opened with a non-question to Mr. Blanchet about the “discriminatory” nature of some Quebec legislation, and suggested the province has “problems with racism.”
It came across as a conclusory indictment, and Mr. Blanchet easily spun it into a libel against all Quebeckers. The next day, Mr. Legault piled on and said it was an attack on Quebec values. Falling into line were Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Trudeau, who agreed the question was unjustly premised on the idea that Quebeckers are racist.
The two federal leaders, along with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, also dutifully continued to look the other way on Bill 21, the Quebec law at the root of all this – a law that most certainly does discriminate against some Quebeckers.
The episode was the latest illustration of how Mr. Legault is trying to hold sway over this election.
Ten days into the campaign, Mr. Legault surprised a lot of people when he praised the Conservative Party for offering the provinces an increase in health transfers with no strings attached, for promising to give more immigration powers to Quebec and for vowing not to challenge Bill 21 in court.
He said the Liberals and NDP, on the other hand, would reduce the province’s autonomy with their plans to include national standards in long-term care, and by not supporting his demand for more immigration powers.
At the same time, Mr. Legault casually dismissed the $6-billion the Liberal government has already agreed to give the province, without conditions, as part of a national child-care program – a program Mr. O’Toole promises to end if elected.
Mr. Legault doubled down on his endorsement last week, and then some, when he said the Liberals, NDP and Greens were “dangerous” for Quebec, and that he would prefer to see a minority Conservative government.
Quebec is home to nearly one-quarter of the seats in Parliament, and Mr. Legault clearly wants to play kingmaker – although he wouldn’t put it that way. He sells himself merely as the defender of Quebec values, and as a premier with an “autonomist ambition.” He does not want another unpopular referendum on independence; he does want as many powers for Quebec as Ottawa will relinquish.
But while he is currently the most popular politician in Quebec, the Premier should not be mistaken for an oracle who speaks for all of the province’s voters.
Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec party was elected to a majority government in 2018 – but with only 37.4 per cent of the popular vote. The Premier’s personal popularity is high, and polls suggest that, if an election were held today, he’d roll to another majority. But polls also suggest at least half the population would vote for other parties, notably the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire and the Quebec Liberal Party.
He is, in other words, a campaigning politician keeping his opponents off-balance and trying to appease his coalition (as his party’s name suggests) of former separatists, possible future separatists, cultural nationalists, progressives and conservatives.
There are many Quebeckers this week wondering why Mr. Legault is willing to give up $6-billion in federal money for the province’s child-care system in exchange for Conservative pledges of more provincial autonomy, plus a promise of funding for a controversial commuter tunnel in the Quebec City region that Mr. Legault wants to build, at a cost of at least $10-billion. Some Quebec voters share the Premier’s priorities on these issues. Many do not.
It was a mistake to open last week’s debate with a blanket generalization-cum-accusation about Quebec society – and it was a mistake to direct the non-question at Mr. Blanchet alone, as if he were there as the sole representative of Quebec. In 2019, the Liberals won more seats in Quebec than the Bloc, and more votes, too.
But it’s just as big a mistake to think that Mr. Legault’s political preferences are those of all Quebeckers. Quebec is not a monolith. Its voters have a wide array of beliefs, and it’s best not to trust someone who claims to speak for all of them.
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