Surely, reasonably minded Canadians can agree on this: a Parti Québécois victory on Tuesday would be very bad for both Quebec and the rest of Canada. The summertime campaign has laid bare the irrational, extreme, even perverse views of Pauline Marois and her separatist supporters. They don't like Canada, they don't like wealth, they don't like innovation (i.e., change), they don't even seem to like people who don't look or talk like them.
This is no longer the PQ of Lucien Bouchard, the former premier. The party has taken a dangerous left turn; it's there for all Quebec to see. The PQ's financial projections are irresponsible, from keeping electricity rates, daycare fees and tuition low, to creating disincentives for enterpreneurship, to a big tax bite for the rich.
A PQ government would be marked by a series of provocations to the federal government, in a quest for "winning conditions." Even if Ms. Marois were cautious, she would be under pressure from militants who would deploy the proposed citizen-initiative mechanism to permit a referendum supported by 15 per cent of the public.
Let's not stop there, since she doesn't. As if to discourage or repel much-needed immigrants, Ms. Marois has flirted with an intense cultural nationalism, with an unreasonable lack of accommodation for ethnic minorities, awakening intolerance in some.
But what options do Quebeckers have?
The ruling Liberals of Jean Charest are at the end of a road. Mr. Charest is a genuine federalist, interested in the rest of Canada and hopeful for his people. He has been in many ways an admirable premier, held back by competing social forces and an increasingly suspect party machine. He deserves praise for undertaking Plan Nord, a bold investment in the development of northern Quebec. He took on the irrational student protests, too. Yet he has not delivered on the "re-engineering of the state" that he promised in 2003. Although the Liberals' record on budgets is respectable, the broader-public-sector debt, including Hydro-Québec's, has not been confronted.
Mr. Charest is offering more of the same, which is not enough, either in the public interest of Quebec or for the people of Quebec in their now prevailing mood. For some, the last straw in this campaign was his stab at extending the grip of the Charter of the French Language to federally regulated workplaces, which was swiftly followed by a reversal – seemingly a symptom of someone clinging to power for its own sake.
Which takes us to the third option, the CAQ and its curious leader François Legault, a respected business leader, one-time sovereigntist and author of policy-on-the-fly.
Quebec faces major challenges over the next few years, as does the rest of Canada, and new leadership is needed. Its economic growth has been modest, and slow growth around the world will not help. All the parties in this election place great hope in Quebec's natural resources, but the unmistakable fall in international mineral prices will disappoint their expectations. The public-sector debt is a heavy burden. The aging demographic is about the same as in the rest of Canada, but Quebec may have a harder time than some other provinces in attracting immigrants, so as to avert a population decline. And the prospects in fiscal federalism suggest downward pressure on equalization payments.
Mr. Legault seems willing to accept these challenges. Faced with the reality of an unsustainable state, he wants to experiment with the education system, to encourage enterpreneurship and high-technology skills, and to pioneer more than the Liberals did with health care. The CAQ presents itself as an agent of change, which is good but also means it is untried in office. The party's sovereigntist elements are worrying. Mr. Legault, for all his deep-seated nationalism, says that he would vote against sovereignty in a referendum during the next 10 years.
Some of the CAQ's platform is thoughtful, if not fully thought-through, a surprising combination of ambitious cuts (including a much leaner Hydro-Québec) and ambitious new spending. The Caquistes have a weakness for government-led industrial strategy, but the program is friendly to business, and if they won power, they would benefit from the business community's advice.
As Quebec, and Canada, prepare for Tuesday's vote, the province is left with an unenviable choice – a fear-mongering, isolationist PQ; a fatigued and ethically marred Liberal Party; a novel, naïve and sometimes contradictory CAQ.
If we could wish anything for Quebec, it would be a minority alliance of the established Liberals and upstart CAQ, one that melds experience, daring and willingess to work with the rest of Canada on our shared challenges that lie ahead. It is an imperfect comparison, but on another Sept. 4 (1984), Brian Mulroney brought together similarly strange bedfellows. It worked for a time at the federal level. Quebeckers may hope for a provincial alliance that may just produce a new and better age in Quebec politics.