It is going to be a long year in Quebec politics. The province's first fixed-date election is more than eight months away, yet the unofficial campaign began in earnest this week as the sitting Liberals unveiled a slew of worker- and child-friendly measures. They thus hope to blur the memory of four years of austerity governance.
By loosening the purse strings and attempting to straddle the middle on economic issues between the leftish Parti Québécois and rightish Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the Liberals hope to make up for their inability to get on top of the intractable identity issues that dominate provincial politics.
On Wednesday, Premier Philippe Couillard's government announced the minimum wage will rise by 75 cents to $12 in May. The previous day, it unveiled a $1.4-billion package of measures to repair dilapidated schools, hire more teachers' aides and provide free breakfast to low-income elementary school students. Before that, it announced a $3-billion anti-poverty plan.
It is going to take a lot more than this to save the Liberals. Despite a balanced budget, decent economy and the country's second-lowest unemployment rate – an unprecedented 4.9 per cent in December – Mr. Couillard appears to be on his way to becoming a one-term premier.
If the downtrodden Liberals can take any consolation, it lies in the fact that their main nemesis for the past four decades is in even worse shape than them.
Under Leader Jean-François Lisée, the sovereigntist PQ promised not to hold a referendum on independence if it wins the next election. And ever since, it has seen its poll numbers sink to historic lows.
This has naturally led to an existential debate between those in the party who think that Mr. Lisée's soft-peddling on sovereignty is behind the PQ's more than 10-percentage-point slide in the polls in the past year, and those who argue that it is the shape-shifting leader's dog-whistle identity politics that has turned off younger Québécois.
The hardliners want nothing more than to see the return of Jean-Martin Aussant, a former MNA who quit the PQ in 2011 to found the even more hardline sovereigntist Option Nationale.
The latter merged in December with Québec Solidaire, the anti-capitalist party that has been eating into PQ support throughout the province but especially in east-end Montreal ridings. Mr. Aussant has so far been non-commital, although a couple of safe-ish PQ seats just opened up should he decide to run.
The standard-bearer for the more modern and inclusive PQ sought by younger Péquistes, Alexandre Cloutier, just voted with his feet. Twice a runner-up for the leadership – against the ephemeral Pierre Karl Péladeau in 2015 and then against the veteran Mr. Lisée in 2016 – Mr. Cloutier, 40, said on Tuesday that he had lost the "motivation" to continue the fight and would not seek re-election in October.
The same day, two more high-profile MNAs announced their departures and more are expected to follow. But Mr. Cloutier's move to quit politics – if only temporarily – is the harshest blow. It amounts to a repudiation of the direction in which Mr. Lisée has taken the party. He won the leadership, in part, by painting Mr. Cloutier as soft on religious fundamentalism. The PQ under Mr. Lisée has sought to outdo the arch-conservative CAQ on identity issues. It's not working.
Almost everybody who's anybody in Quebec politics thinks the CAQ will win the next election. That doesn't mean it will happen. But the zeitgeist is all about Quebeckers' fatigue with the traditional Liberal-PQ alternance. CAQ Leader François Legault, a former PQ minister who became independently wealthy as an original partner in Air Transat, practices a folksy brand of politics that relies heavily on exploiting fears about immigration and multiculturalism without sounding mean.
The small-government CAQ is also drawing support among business people who feel the Liberals have barely moved to reduce taxes, which remain the highest in North America. While the budget is balanced for now, Quebec's rapidly aging population means future governments are likely to confront structural deficits unless non-health-care spending is reined in. The CAQ gets this.
Recruiting big-name candidates from the business community has proved a tough slog for the CAQ, however. Mr. Legault hoped to lure RBC Capital Markets vice-chairman Michael Fortier to run. The former Conservative senator and cabinet minister under Stephen Harper took a pass on becoming finance minister in a first-ever CAQ government.
National Bank senior vice-president Éric Girard, who ran for the Conservatives in 2015 in the largely anglophone West Island riding of Lac-Saint-Louis, also said no to the CAQ. He would have been a shoo-in for a senior economics portfolio in a Legault government.
Still, it's only January in what is going to be the longest year yet in Quebec politics.