Benjamin Tremblay–a content-creator and writer–is a native of Quebec and an expert on the politics and history of the province. His latest work, CAQ=PLQ, outlines the origins of the front-running Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) and its structural similarities with the Parti Libéral du Québec (PLQ).
Tremblay also operates the alternative-media site 7 Jours sur Terre, where he and a team of journalists explore contemporary issues, interview politicians and important figures, and explore the history of Quebec and Canada.
I spoke with Tremblay in order to learn more about his book and discuss the current electoral landscape of Quebec politics. We also spoke about his perspective on the future of federal politics and the Conservative Party’s relation with Quebec.
For part 1 of our interview, we’ll be discussing his book on the CAQ and the Liberal party, as well as political corruption and party differences within the province.
The transcript of the interview was lightly edited for brevity
NAHMIAS: If I’m not wrong, the thesis of your book is that the Coalition Avenir Québec is a sort of artificial creation by elites to attract Quebecers who have had enough with the Parti Libéral du Québec. Why do you say that, and what is the evidence you have for what you’re saying?
TREMBLAY: The point that I was trying to demonstrate was that it wasn’t really a creation by the PLQ, but they both really serve the same people and the same purpose. If you look at the creation of the CAQ and look at how it all began, it was actually back when Legault was attacking the FIER, which is the Fonds d’intervention économique régional, and he was exposing at the time how money was being funneled to friends of the Liberal Party.
It’s all in the book by Richard Le Hir, which is Charles Sirois, l’homme Derrière François Legault. It was at that moment that it was ideal to support a party which was supposed to be nationalistic without being sovereigntist, because simply, it wasn’t electorally popular to be federalist.
From that moment, if you remember the context of the time—in 2012—the commission Charbonneau was just beginning. The Charest government was being exposed every day as being corrupt, and maybe it spent too much time in power.
Then you had the protests in the street for the student movement. At that moment, it just wasn’t a good bet to put your money on the Liberal party for re-election.
But the people who actually put the Liberal party in power need to have the government on their side and one good example of that–and that’s part of the thesis–is that recently La Presse went and tried to become a non-profit organization, and they went in front of the National Assembly and asked the Members of the National Assembly to change the law so they could become a non-profit organization.
So basically what he (Desmarais) said in front of the Members of National Assembly was that he would rather have his newspaper shut down than being something else than an arm for the Liberal party.
At that point, they needed the unanimous approval of the National Assembly, and they didn’t get it! Why? Not because they didn’t get the vote, but because the vote never happened. Mr. Desmarais (owner of La Presse and Power Corporation) was basically testifying and asking for privileges.
He was in front of Members of the National Assembly and some of them asked him if there was a way we could make sure that La Presse would not be a federalist or even a sovereignist outlet, just to make sure there was a straight editorial line and no interference from management.
What he said basically was no, it’s not possible. He said straight up he would cancel the move (to become a non-profit organization) if he didn’t have control of the editorial line of the newspaper. So basically what he said in front of the Members of National Assembly was that he (Desmarais) would rather have his newspaper shut down than being something else than an arm for the Liberal party.
At that moment everyone realized it was all planned from the beginning and there was no debate at all. When it came time to vote, some votes were uncertain. I’m thinking of Martine Ouellette, For example, she was putting on a show, and saying that she wasn’t going to vote for it. So what the government did was that they imposed the legislation without the assembly voting for it (this is known as “invoking closure”).
At that moment, we realized that Desmarais and La Presse and all these people, they need the government to be on their side. If you just imagine if it would have the CAQ or even a Parti Québecois government or a Quebec Solidaire government, it would have been way different.
You would have had people that would have questioned them to the end, and they would have actually wanted answers and not the non-answers that were given. They would have wanted answers other than “we will shut down the newspaper if we can’t use it as a political arm.”
So it’s at that point when we realize is that they (Desmarais) need someone to help them in power. They need to have a good relationship with the party in power and so when it became clear that the Liberals were going to lose in 2012, there had to be another option.
So the party itself is a very good idea, because it splits the vote right in the middle, and ensures that the same people stay in power at all times.
So what happened was that the CAQ was created: it was created with the same people who were along with the PLQ a few years back. I’m thinking of Charles Sirois, who still attends CAQ congresses. So what we realized is that it’s the same people serving the same purposes and it’s not really a point of the platform or the ideas, it doesn’t have anything to do with that.
When you think of it, it’s a good plot, you can’t have the separatists in power, that’s something they’ll never let happen; that could be understandable from their point of view. So what they will do at that point is that they know they can’t shut their eyes on nationalist ideas, on the immigration question, on the questions that are actually sensible on one side of the political spectrum, and so they need to have political party to address these questions.
However, they couldn’t have one that was for independence. The one that used to carry this political weight, it used to be the Parti Québecois, which was the only nationalist option. When it became clear they (the Parti Québecois in 2012) were going to take power, they just created another option who sat in the middle, who wasn’t for independence and who’s not for Canada either, who’s just a nationalistic option who will try to get concessions from Ottawa. The CAQ.
So the party itself is a very good idea, because it splits the vote right in the middle, and ensures that the same people stay in power at all times. The big resemblance when we look at the parties themselves, it’s the structure.
Look at the Parti Québecois for example: they have 90,000 members I think, they have more members than any other party combined. This isn’t because they have more votes. Quebec Solidaire has a heck of a lot of members as well. That’s not the point, the point is that it’s all about the structure of the party.
What it does though, it makes them (the CAQ) a party that’s not for an idea, it’s for power.
Some parties have a top-to-bottom structure, I’m thinking of the PLQ, I’m thinking of the CAQ. If you want a good example of that, who picks the candidate in the Liberal party? It’s the leader, it’s Mr. Couillard, we saw that in Marquette with Mr. Ouimet, we saw that the boss is at the top of the party.
We look at the CAQ, it’s the same thing. Who picks the candidates? He (François Legault) brags about it. He says he’s “I’m the only one who picks the 125 candidates, I have the last word on it.”
Both parties share that, it comes from the top, and then goes to the bottom.
If you look at the Parti Québecois and Québec Solidaire, it is the complete opposite. It goes from the bottom, and then it comes all the way to the top. As soon as the leader does not represent the base in the way that they want, then he’s burning himself, then he’s out the door.
That’s why they (the PQ) runs through their leaders like crazy, and they have five in like 10 years. Because the real bosses aren’t at the top of the party, it’s at at the bottom of the party.
Where does the platform emerge from? It emerges from the members of the two parties (the Parti Québecois and Québec Solidaire).
You can see the same dynamic across the world, it doesn’t make the Coalition Avenir Québec illegitimate, it doesn’t make them less good, it doesn’t make them less of a good option to vote for.
What it does though, it makes them (the CAQ) a party that’s not for an idea, it’s for power. It’s made to take power, and occupy power, and it’s basically their only purpose. It’s good government.
You can argue it’s a good thing. Some people will argue it’s a very good thing: that good government is all that is needed. At this point that nationalism is dying and as those questions are evacuated from the public debate, we could perfectly argue that the best option would be the best government. We can basically say this is what we’re looking for. We can argue that. But we have to do it with a clear head.
We have to know that the objective is not to promote one idea over another, the idea is to take power and then govern, and then get out of power, and then take it back, and then just alternate like that.
If you look at Quebec Solidaire–I’m really not a Solidaire myself–you can’t say that they’re trying to get power, you can’t say that their careerists, their not there for the job, the nice chauffeur and the limousine.
The argument is that it’s a bit of a paradox: they (the CAQ and the PLQ) are actively trying to be different so that they can be more of the same.
Their not compromising ideas to get into power. They are trying to convince people of their ideas, whether they’re good or not. They are trying to convince as many people as they can to join them, and maybe some day to take power. That’s not the dynamic when you look at the PLQ or the CAQ.
Say you’re trying to get into politics, say you’ve had a good career and a good path. You know quite a lot of people, you know you can bring something to the party, you know you’re a good administrator. But you never really thought about doing politics, you don’t have a political background, you don’t have the deep-rooted ideas that somebody else might have.
So what party are you trying to get into? You won’t choose the Parti Québecois because you’ll have to sacrifice and carry their ideas, regardless of whether the ideas are good or not for attaining power. That’s not what you’re there for, you’re there to do politics, to be elected and get into power. That’s what you want to do.
Most people that want to get into politics with no ideological reasons or justification, what they really want to do is to get into power. If you want to do that, you won’t join a party that goes from the bottom to the top. Simply because you don’t take orders from the members if you don’t believe the same things they do.
That’s when we see there’s a big resemblance between the CAQ and the PLQ. So of course if we look at their platforms, we’ll have very different things on both sides. We’ll have similar things as well, but that’s not the argument.
The argument is that it’s a bit of a paradox: they (the CAQ and the PLQ) are actively trying to be different so that they can be more of the same. They’re actively trying to occupy as large as possible of the political spectrum so that then they can basically alternate in power from one to the other.
It’s not a plot, the PLQ is not helping the CAQ and the CAQ is not helping the PLQ. Not at all. It’s that basically they’re trying to do the same thing with the same means and serving the same people.
So that’s the thesis.
Stay tuned for PART 2 of my interview with Benjamin Tremblay, which will focus on the debate of immigration and the Conservative party’s future in Québec