David McLaughlin is a former Conservative party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.
This is the week Quebec takes centre stage in Canada's federal election. Two French-language debates last week and this week bookend a heightened focus by party leaders on the recurring imponderable of Canadian politics: How will Quebec vote?
Historically, Quebec has been a monolithic, if episodic, voter, giving outsized majorities of its 75 seats to all of the parties at one time or another. A bastion of Liberal strength under Pierre Trudeau, it went bleu under Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives for two terms before embracing the Bloc Québécois in six successive elections.
That ended in 2011 with the NDP's Orange Wave of 59 seats, catching most political observers by surprise, especially the Bloc, which disintegrated to just four seats.
That election also saw the Conservatives win a majority government with almost no Quebec representation. The province determined the leader of the opposition, not the prime minister, as Stephen Harper would have still won the job even without the five Quebec seats the Tories garnered.
In today's tight election campaign, Quebec matters in the three most important ways possible: who forms government, whether it will be a majority or minority government, and who will be the leader of the opposition.
Quebec matters most to the NDP. Without retaining the party's 2011 windfall, Thomas Mulcair has no chance of heading the NDP's first federal government. Conservative and Liberal strength in both Ontario and B.C., Conservative strongholds on the Prairies, and Liberal support in Atlantic Canada check the NDP's seat growth. Mr. Mulcair needs the likelihood of solid Quebec support to galvanize prospects elsewhere into coalescing for the NDP as the best and most likely agent of defeating the Harper government.
Justin Trudeau's Liberals need a far stronger showing in Quebec than their seven seats from 2011: This is crucial to having any chance of forming a minority government. Otherwise, Mr. Trudeau needs to sweep Ontario as Jean Chrétien did in forming his majority governments in the 1990s – an unlikely possibility given the current three-way race in Ontario.
The federal Liberal brand in Quebec has been in decline for many elections now – the last time the Liberals won a majority of seats there was 1980. That is a difficult trend to reverse in one election under Mr. Trudeau. But without a stronger showing in Quebec on Oct. 19, he will struggle to become leader of the opposition, let alone prime minister.
For the Conservatives, it is a different dynamic. Mr. Harper has proved he can win government without a significant number of Quebec seats. But with Conservative seats under siege in the Maritimes, Ontario and B.C., any loss of the few seats he has in Quebec can make the difference between forming government or not. It's not a majority Conservative government at risk, it's any Conservative government at all.
Then comes the Bloc Québécois spoiler. Gilles Duceppe's vanity exercise, despite his epic loss in 2011, mostly threatens the NDP. It was fleeing Bloc voters who elected New Democrats last time out. The two leaders debates offer him his best stage to reignite whatever lingering passion remains between Quebec voters and his nationalist party. If Mr. Duceppe gains, Mr. Mulcair loses.
On stage in these debates and in the media this week is a key determinant of the whole election. It has been a while since that was the case in Canada. "Je me souviens" – I remember – should be on the licence plate of all of the leaders' buses in the days ahead.