It wasn’t the most suspenseful election night in Quebec. Despite polls showing a tight race, François Legault’s Coalition avenir Quebec (CAQ) stunned the Quebec Liberals and the province’s chattering class Monday with a landslide majority win.
Philippe Couillard’s Liberals – in office for 13 of the past 15 years – were relegated to the opposition, and the Parti Québécois (PQ) was punted to the far back bench, finishing an embarrassing fourth.
No longer a debate about federalism vs. sovereignty
Underneath this result is the fact that for the first time in 40 years, the campaign didn’t revolve around the stale federalism vs. sovereignty issue — known in Quebec as the “national question”.
Replacing that void was a more traditional left vs. right debate on both economic and social questions. Real daylight emerged between the major parties, particularly relating to identity and language, and the CAQ was the principal beneficiary of that.
Nationalism and populism
With the CAQ preparing to name a new cabinet, let’s get a few things straight about who they are. Misconceptions about the CAQ abound, particularly in English Canada.
First, stop calling it a conservative party. The CAQ is nationalist and populist.
The party does have some fiscally conservative elements in it, but the CAQ’s unifying battle cry is preserving language and culture by cutting immigration and promoting French.
In the campaign, Legault committed to a 20% cut in immigration levels and proposed giving new arrivals three years to learn French or face expulsion. Legault promoted a “secularism charter” prohibiting teachers, judges and police officers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols while at work.
The CAQ understands, and capitalized on, the strong misgivings in mainstream Quebec about mass immigration and multiculturalism. Quebec is much closer to the American “melting pot” concept than the rest of Canada. Aside from the strong desire for change, the CAQ was elected because of these promises.
History of the CAQ
It has been a long and winding road to government for Legault and his team, who founded the CAQ in 2011. A former CEO and co-founder of Air Transat, Legault first entered politics in 1998, sitting as Industry and Commerce Minister under then-Parti Québécois (PQ) Premier Lucien Bouchard. He subsequently held the health and education portfolios until the PQ was ousted in 2003.
The party was born out of a merger with the now defunct Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), a stridently nationalist party fueled by anger with the failure of the Meech Lake accord.
Under leader Mario Dumont, the ADQ made it to official opposition in 2007, but was reduced to seven seats after that minority government fell in 2008. After Dumont left for a TV gig, the party never fully recovered and the CAQ was launched.
There will never be a sovereignty referendum, says Legault
The CAQ has shifted and swayed on policy over the years and has never been quite as ideological as the ADQ. In this campaign, they all but erased the differences between them and the Liberals, other than the language and culture issues.
There remains a degree of mistrust of the CAQ by federalists given Legault’s sovereignist background and the ADQ’s support of the YES side in the 1995 sovereignty referendum.
Legault has tempered the problem by saying there will never be a sovereignty referendum under a CAQ government. The party’s constitution has even been amended to declare the CAQ’s primary objective is to “ensure the development and prosperity of the Quebec nation within Canada.”
PQ leader lost seat to far-left party Québec Solidaire
There were other surprises on election night. Not only did the PQ lose official party status, far-left Québec Solidaire (QS) beat PQ leader Jean-François Lisée in his own riding of Rosemont. Lisée has since resigned as leader, leaving the party’s future in a state of disarray and uncertainty.
QS won ten seats (one more than the PQ) and should now be considered a serious factor in Quebec provincial politics.
Under the Legault and the CAQ, Canadians can expect a bit more chest-thumping from Quebec on culture and language and a tendency toward fiscal conservatism – including a desire to make Quebec less reliant on equalization payments. But it won’t be a major change – and certainly not a radical change on the right.
Adam Daifallah is Managing Partner of HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm.