The resurgence of the “Blue Alliance”
The federal elections of the 1980s were the last time the Conservative Party was able to pick up a significant amount of seats in the province of Quebec. During this period, Brian Mulroney was able to rally Quebec nationalists and conservatives disenfranchised with a Liberal Party still associated to Pierre Trudeau’s centralist vision of Canada.
Mulroney, himself a native of the province, was able to convince a broad segment of the Quebec electorate that a Conservative government would govern the country while respecting Quebec’s singularity within the federation. Thirty years and another Trudeau in power later, Andrew Scheer is attempting to recreate the same coalition; and he’s having some success.
The Chicoutimi/Fjord by-election victory, a referendum on Trudeau?
On June 18, Conservative candidate Richard Martel swept the riding of Chicoutimi/Fjord, capturing 52% of the vote and defeating the second place Liberal Party candidate Lina Boivin, who managed to obtain 29.48%. It is important to note that the Conservatives ended up in fourth place in this same riding in 2015, behind the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and the then-victorious Liberal Party.
To add salt to the wound, the Chicoutimi-Fjord by-election defeat represented the first time the Liberals had lost a party-held by-election since Justin Trudeau became party leader in 2013. Several questions, however, remain: is Quebec’s electorate truly warming to the Conservative party, and will this support be enough to allow the Conservatives to make substantial electoral gains in 2019?
Quebec’s changing political landscape
Ever since the 1995 referendum on Quebec separation, what was once the primary cleavage of the province–sovereignty versus federalism–has slowly been relegated as an electoral issue among others. Instead, the province’s politics have gradually adopted a conventional left versus right cleavage. This has translated politically into the continuous decline in support for the provincial Parti Quebecois and the complete collapse of the federal Bloc Québecois.
On the surface, the latter development is of more importance to the federal Conservatives, who hope to take advantage of the fall of the Bloc to amass disgruntled nationalist voters. This has clearly been Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s strategy, who as of late has taken several important steps to woo nationalist and sovereigntist voters.
However, the rise of the centre-right nationalist Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), may prove to be the more important development. The CAQ, a relatively new provincial party lead by former Parti Québécois ministre François Legault, has a solid advance in the polls over the incumbent Liberal Party of Quebec and the Parti Quebecois.
Legault has taken a large amount of support away from the centre-right nationalist wing of the Parti Québecios, who has struggled in recent years to maintain its sovereignist coalition of left and right-wing voters. With a provincial election taking place on October 1, the CAQ is in a relatively good position to form the province’s next government.
While it may prove to be unlikely, it is not impossible to imagine that a Legault government might support–at least tacitly–the Conservative Party during the 2019 elections. With the federal Liberals putting a significant amount of their electoral chips in Quebec, an endorsement from a Quebec premier for the Conservative party may prove to be the killing blow to Trudeau’s chances of being re-elected with a majority government.
There is precedent for this: both René Lévesque and Robert Bourassa–respectively Parti Québecois and Liberal premiers of Quebec during the 1980s–supported the Mulroney Progressive Conservatives during the two federal elections that took place in the decade.
Andrew Scheer’s strategy
Andrew Scheer has taken the time to visit the province on several occasions, even appearing on the popular but relatively unfriendly territory of Tout Le Monde En Parle. Tout Le Monde En Parle, hosted by comedians Guy A. Lepage and Dany Turcotte, is notorious for having a left-wing ideological bent (this likely being the reason why Stephen Harper never chose to make an appearance).
However, Scheer was able to handle himself well, demonstrating his ability to clearly communicate his ideas and converse with the hosts in french (albeit with a strong english accent).
Importantly, Scheer has taken important steps to increase the party’s foothold in the province, such as recruiting popular political figures such as former Bloc Québecois leader Michel Gauthier and Trois-Rivières mayor Yves Lévesque. Gauthier, who had been an MP in the Lac-St-Jean riding neighbouring Chicoutimi-Fjord, likely played a significant part in the conservative by-election victory, delivering several powerful speeches attacking the Trudeau government and urging nationalists to join the Conservative fold.
In more concrete terms, Scheer has offered several policy proposals aimed to attract former Bloc voters, including giving Quebec more power with respect to immigration and cultural issues as well as promising to clamp down the deluge of irregular refugees entering the province.
He has also proposed allowing Quebec to collect federal taxes on Ottawa’s behalf, effectively putting an end to the current situation where Quebecers are required file taxes twice for both the provincial and federal levels. These policy proposals, especially the promise to enforce Canada’s immigration laws, are likely to be popular for Quebecers. The Chicoutimi/Fjord by-election, where the Conservatives were the beneficiaries of a 36% jump in the vote, may represent the beginnings of a new “Blue Alliance.”
What do the polls say?
While the Conservatives have seen a marked surge in support in the polls (the NDP and the Bloc both taking significant losses) this increase is still not significant enough to make wide seat gains in the province.
According to CBC’s Poll Tracker, the Conservatives receive 22% support from Quebec versus the Liberal’s 41%. Eric Grenier– poll analyst for the CBC–estimates that Quebec’s current support for the Conservatives puts them in position to win 18 out of the province’s 79 seats. While this would be a six seat gain from the 12 seats won in 2015, the Conservatives still have a long way to go to recreate Brian Mulroney’s 1988 63-seat sweep of the province.
However, voters of Quebec have time and again proved their willingness to rapidly change party allegiance when a political leader demonstrates an ability to represent their interests in Ottawa.