So they're back. Only 19 months after being shunted aside for the Parti Québécois in the usual dance of power here, the Quebec Liberal Party has returned to office with a vengeance, this time with a largely unknown and untested leader, and a majority mandate to be anything but the PQ.
In a campaign where little of substance was discussed, Philippe Couillard, a former neurosurgeon, inherits a mess of unfinished business — an economy hobbled by slow growth and an aging population, a society divided over the province's controversial charter of values, and a history of political corruption that will continue to nag the province and the Liberals themselves.
It is here, the integrity issue, that Couillard will likely face his first test as the Charbonneau commission reconvenes to tackle the prickly issue of political financing, in the process putting the Liberal party directly in its line of sight.
But the Liberal majority gives the new premier some breathing room and leaves his opponents, the PQ in particular, to do some deep soul searching to try to figure out just how things went so very wrong.
Last night proved to be nothing less than an indictment of Pauline Marois's PQ, and the repudiation of a sovereigntist option that had been carefully planned and presented on the back of identity politics.
Even Couillard defied the odds and won his Saguenay-area riding of Roberval, a PQ stronghold since 2003, while Marois went down to defeat after almost 35 years in the legislature.
The easiest explanation for the Liberals sweep is that they won by default.
The now accepted view is that the PQ campaign foundered the moment Marois lost the reigns of the referendum issue to Pierre-Karl Péladeau’s nationalist fist-pumping. The media baron, a controversial addition because of his labour politics, among other things, provoked a schism within the PQ, and put the sovereignty question front and centre, not what Marois wanted.
From then on, all attempts to regain ground – be it with the once popular charter of values or the corruption allegations against the Liberals (the issue that drove Jean Charest from power in 2012) – not only failed, but brought about the kind of blowback that eventually eroded voter confidence.
Couillard clearly benefited from his adversary’s missteps. His campaign, ostensibly framed around the “real issues” of the economy and health care was much like the man himself: pragmatic, measured and a touch mundane. He never really soared, but may have at least been heard.
Still, to define his win solely by the PQ's loss fails to give the man his props, first among them that he finally got his timing right.
Sovereignty pushed back
In the beginning, Couillard was initially seen as fear-mongering when it came to the issue of independence. But he managed to seize hold of the referendum question once it became airborne, and suddenly he appeared insightful instead of obsessional as the ballot box question came more into focus.
In fact, Quebec's turn against any possible referendum has been so severe that sovereignty is widely seen, even by many separatists, as having suffered a setback from which it may not recover for some time.
Of course, that claim has been made before, and the combined vote count of the two sovereigntist parties, the PQ and Quebec Solidaire, suggest that the dream is not dead yet.
But faced with a campaign about everything and nothing, Quebec voters returned to their old ways.
In 2012, the long and noisy student strikes, and the wider popular protests that followed, inspired the idea that Quebec politics had taken a turn, away from the old battles of Quebec and Canada to a new left-right split.
It was an inspiring, almost romantic idea: a new political vein for a new century.
Both Quebec's third- and fourth-placed parties — François Legault’s Coalition Avenir Quebec and Francoise David's Quebec Solidaire — were born of this moment.
But faced with the prospect of four years of referendum talk while the economy, health care and education continued to suffer, Quebec voters snapped back to the old norm.
And who can blame them. Quebecers have yet to emerge from years of turmoil, from the strife of the student strikes to continued revelations of corruption at the Charbonneau commission and the months of dissent and division over the charter of values.
Marois sought to parlay these divisions into a winning hand, but instead voters rejected the play and scattered their votes among the four main parties, with the Liberals benefiting by the split.
A common refrain in Quebec these days about party corruption and now the charter of values is that “at least we're talking about" these difficult issues. As if that offers some sort of therapeutic release or confessional deliverance. It hasn't.
Rather, these things are probably better seen as tearing at an already delicate social fabric. And the Liberal majority probably has much to do with putting an end to that kind of tearing, and entrusting the business of government to a man who has consistently come across as a reliable manager, a steady-hand-on-the-tiller type of guy even if he doesn't have much in the way of a common touch.
When looking for a defining moment in Philippe Couillard’s campaign, it’s initially a little elusive, until it becomes clear that winning was it.
He’s a slow gain kind of guy, a late bloomer. Now, all he has to do is fulfill the promise of that particular title.