The party invented by René Lévesque in 1968 is in trouble
by John F. Conway
The Parti Québécois (PQ) was founded with two missions: bringing about an independent Quebec and creating a social democratic nation-building project, rooted in the great achievements of the Quiet Revolution.
The goals were popular, and the Québécois working class became a fortress of support for the PQ. And while there were zigs and zags over the years, after flirting with abandoning social democracy and compromising the independence goal, internal upheavals brought the PQ back to independence and moderate social democracy.
And in 2012, after almost 10 years of rule by Liberal Premier Jean Charest (2003-12), characterized by strong support for Canadian federalism, the imposition of neoliberal measures, and coziness with Prime Minister Harper, Pauline Marois led the PQ back to power with a minority victory.
During the 2012 election, the PQ returned to its fundamentals, campaigning on a social democratic and pro-sovereignty platform. The 2012 student uprising against the Charest government’s increased tuition fees — an uprising which became a sustained anti-neoliberal crusade — helped defeat both the government and Charest in Sherbrooke. (Corruption scandals had also rocked the Liberal government.)
Upon victory, however, Marois reversed herself and embraced neoliberalism. It was not a popular change.
Budgetary measures over 18 months were seen as betrayals by students and growing numbers among the PQ’s popular base. The decision to raise rather than freeze tuition fees — they went up $70/year, to be followed by a three per cent increase each year thereafter — brought out thousands of protesting students in March 2013.
Increased fees for Quebec’s famous $5/day daycare program brought in by the PQ in 1997 was another betrayal. Charest raised the fee to $7/day in 2004. The PQ government raised it to $8/day in 2014 and $9/day in 2015, with yearly indexed increases thereafter.
These measures diminished two cornerstones of the PQ’s progressive social project: low tuition fees and inexpensive, universal day care. Behind these high-profile symbolic reversals, the PQ government embraced the neoliberal austerity agenda: refusal to rescind the health tax; reductions in welfare payments; cuts in school board funding; efforts to suppress public sector wages; a balanced budget by 2016; abandoned promises to raise mining royalties and toughen up regulation of the industry; and delays in strengthening the language law.
Basically, the PQ shredded its 2012 election platform, and by June 2013 the party was 14 points behind the Liberals.
It was hoped that this right turn would attract support from right-wing, soft nationalists, the main francophone base for Francois Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which won 19 seats and 27 per cent of the popular vote in 2012. Alas, CAQ’s support held up well, while a small erosion favoured the Liberals. Meanwhile, the PQ’s measures revitalized the left-wing sovereigntist Quebec Solidaire (QS). QS support began to track upwards from the six per cent (and two seats) won in 2012.
In an act of desperate opportunism, the PQ decided to fight the election on the Quebec Charter of Values. Not surprisingly, the Charter instantly cleaved the province’s francophone majority from the growing ethnic communities, but the polarization went deeper. A chorus of opposition on civil libertarian grounds grew within Quebec and beyond. The law, while claiming the goal of democratic secularism, in effect punitively singled out visible ethnic groups, especially those wearing distinctive clothing and symbols with religious significance. All public employees were to be banned from such overt manifestations of religion. One’s face had to be uncovered when receiving or providing publicly funded services. There were large street demonstrations, for and against. Xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments were expressed openly in confrontations on the streets, at shopping malls, and in subways. The lid was off Pandora’s Box, giving some the green light to publicly express previously hidden ugly sentiments.
The Charter divided the PQ. Former PQ premiers Parizeau, Bouchard and Landry opposed it. Bloc MP Maria Mourani, a breakthrough in the PQ’s campaign to win allophones to sovereignty, quit the party in disgust. The large teachers’ union, a key pillar of PQ support, opposed the Charter, while the other big unions hesitated to commit. Quebec’s Human Rights Commission declared the Charter a violation of citizens’ rights. Most constitutional experts argued the Charter was unconstitutional under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Nevertheless, the PQ was encouraged. Francophone support for the Charter was high (69 per cent, according to one poll), and the PQ’s plan for winning a majority required a large win among francophone voters.
Though initially condemning the Charter, the Liberals and the CAQ, with an eye on the polls, began to hedge their bets, declaring degrees of critical support. The QS consistently denounced the Charter as exclusionary, calling for a thoroughgoing, democratic and inclusive secularization. Charter support among francophones failed to bring the promised gains for the PQ. Polls from September, 2013, when the Charter was tabled, to January, 2014 consistently put both the PQ and Liberals in the mid-30s.
February and March 2014 polls began to give the PQ an edge, with support touching even 40 per cent in mid-February. On March 5, Marois called the election for April 7. On March 9 she lost momentum with a second act of opportunism, when she held a press conference to introduce the PQ’s star candidate, Pierre Karl Peladeau. Billionaire media tycoon Peladeau is the epitome of the ruthless, union-busting, neoliberal capitalist in Quebec. Marois believed Peladeau would bring economic credibility to the PQ, and attract right-wing supporters from the CAQ. It didn’t work — as far as the Québécois working class is concerned, Marois may as well have recruited Jack the Ripper.
By late March, polls put the PQ in the low 30s and the Liberals in the low to mid 40s. The CAQ still held 15 per cent; the QS, nine per cent.
Most media pundits attributed the PQ fall to Peladeau’s clenched fist call for a country, raising fears of sovereignty and a referendum. But such fears are systematically used in every election against the PQ. A better interpretation might be that many among the Quebec sovereignty movement do not aspire to the kind of independent Quebec Peladeau would build. PQ apologists correctly argue that Lévesque’s sovereignty church was always large and ideologically diverse. But what church reserves a seat for Satan among the congregation, let alone in the priesthood?
In a final act of pathos, the PQ tried to provoke fear among francophone voters that Anglo invaders from Ontario and the rest of Canada were signing up to vote in order to steal the election. It backfired, leading to ridicule for the PQ.
A journalist covering Tory PM Kim Campbell’s ill-fated 1993 campaign compared it to “watching a dog die.” That phrase comes to mind as the PQ’s 2014 campaign unravels.