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antonia maioni

Ah, the holidays in Quebec! A winter wonderland, lots of bonne bouffe, and of course, les fêtes de famille. But nothing serves to casser le party (that is, break up a good time) like a political discussion with a beau-frère or matante. And this year, given the increasing polarization in the Quebec electorate over a host of issues, there is plenty to disagree about.

The most evident is the PQ government's proposed secular charter that bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols for all public workers. Widely debated for months now, Bill 60 promises to be the new year's biggest gift to political observers in Quebec. Interest groups, institutions and individuals are gearing up for public hearings, which begin in mid-January and go on for weeks.

Expect some colourful characters to emerge (in the tradition of Hérouxville and Saguenay's Mayor Jean Tremblay), but also serious reflections on the meaning of the charter for Quebec society. Arguments about religious freedom, gender equality and state neutrality divide every which way among Quebeckers. While there may be soul-searching going on among some Quebec nationalists – such as former Bloc Québécois member Maria Mourani's recent turn against sovereignty – there is no denying the strong political impact of the charter on rallying francophone support for Pauline Marois and the Parti Québécois. Perhaps even more important is the economic fallout. Already, employers are concerned about the impact on the work environment, whether skilled professionals will vote with their feet and the potential to attract needed immigrants.

The economy is certainly another matter of contention for turkey talk. The 2013 news was far from rosy – Quebec is facing a hefty deficit and public-sector debt, plus an economic performance that's in the lowest tier among the provinces. Against the economic grinches, however, former premier (and PQ finance minister) Jacques Parizeau has recently re-emerged to spread good cheer about Quebec's "desperately normal" public finances. And yet, you can be sure that the PQ's plans to give up on a balanced budget will add fuel to the opposition parties' fire about the government's handling of the economic situation.

Of course, all this season's talk leads to the inevitable question of a Quebec election in 2014. There is little chance that either the Liberals or the CAQ will allow the minority government to survive a budget vote. The PQ, meanwhile, is priming itself for a late spring budget, which means Quebeckers will be back at the polls by May.

And the outcome of that election is far from certain. The charter and the economy will be front and centre, but by the time the Easter holiday season rolls around, much more will be in play. For one, the Charbonneau commission, which spent most of 2013 digging up the dirt on illicit municipal financing and union business, may uncover even more political shenanigans in 2014. For another, Quebeckers will be judging the political abilities of new Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, as he re-enters the National Assembly in February. An affable and talented guy, Mr. Couillard has nonetheless already been labelled "Philippe-flop" for backtracking on the charter and his confusing statements on the zero deficit goal.

The polls suggest that the next election will be as closely contested as the last, and it's likely that the enduring left-right and sovereigntist-federalist divides will yet again dominate Quebec politics in 2014. So with a full agenda that will generate more than enough political talk in 2014, Quebeckers may be better off turning to other topics to reconnect with their relatives over the holidays. How 'bout them Habs?

Antonia Maioni is an associate professor at McGill University.

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