Montreal·Analysis

Are Quebec's political parties becoming irrelevant?

Sensing social forces arrayed against them, Quebec's two largest parties both announced this weekend that they would embark on renewal projects ahead of the next election.

Liberals, Parti Québécois try to modernize ahead of the next election

Not everyone gets excited about party politics in Quebec, unlike this German partisan. (Daniel Bockwoldt/The Associated Press)

As far as Philippe Couillard speeches go, the one the Quebec premier gave to party members over the weekend wasn't among his most rousing. 

It was aimed squarely at the Liberal rank-and-file, and dealt for the most part with internal party structure. But at about the half-way mark, Couillard struck a particularly cerebral tone, even for the former brain surgeon. 

"How and why do we engage in party membership ... in this new society where everything changes so quickly," Couillard asked.

"In the past, people would say my activism is with the Liberal party," he said, before adding that today young people's activism is directed at particular causes, such as the environment. They also best support the party that best advocates their favoured cause.  

"It's an important change," Couillard said. "The engagement is no longer automatic."

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard promised to hold a series of meetings next year to allow party members to have more input when it comes to forming policies. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The slow death of party politics?

Couillard's most proximate concern might have been reports that suggest Liberal party membership has plummeted, ​from 52,401 in 2014 to 37, 020 in 2015. The Parti Québécois claims to have 70,000, despite being out of power for much of the past decade.  

But political scientists in Quebec have noted that younger generations tend to identify less with a given political party and are more likely to express skepticism about the political system.  

And this is far from a Quebec-only phenomenon. It's been catalogued by social scientists in most post-industrial democracies in the West.

One possible result — advanced by some political scientists — is that stripped of party loyalties, voters become free agents, actively courted on the electoral market.

They are moved by candidates or causes, instead of coherent party programs. Parties, in turn, become disconnected from their base as they chase fickle voters.   

It is a theory that has been used to explain the rise of far-right parties in Europe and Couillard offered it as an explanation for Donald Trump's stunning victory last Tuesday.

The Parti Québécois claims to have 70,000 party members. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Perhaps sensing the social forces arrayed against them, Quebec's two largest parties both announced this weekend that they would embark on renewal projects ahead of the next election.

In Couillard's speech on Saturday, he promised to hold a series of meetings next year to allow party members to have more input when it comes to forming policies.

The PQ, for its part, kick-started an internal campaign dubbed Osez repenser le PQ, or "Dare to rethink the PQ." It will be headed by Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, who finished last in the party's recent leadership race, and seek to grow PQ membership among under-represented demographic groups, such as young people, entrepreneurs and cultural groups.

From political party to kitchen party

These efforts aside, it is difficult to imagine what parliamentary democracy would look like without political parties. 

That, however, hasn't stopped activists and ordinary citizens from experimenting with non-partisan ways of getting involved in politics.  

Social movements, as Couillard hinted, are one example. Think of the thousands of students who took part in the 2012 Maple Spring protests without any obvious party affiliation. 

One of the leaders of that movement, Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, is now experimenting with another form of political, non-partisan participation.

He's joined with several other prominent progressives in a project called Faut qu'on se parle ("We have to talk"), which has organized discussion forums across the province. 

Hundreds of people have taken part in these forums this fall, gathering in auditoriums across Quebec to talk about pressing political and social issues, such as how to reform education, the economy and democracy. 

Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois was a prominent student leader during the 2012 Quebec student protests. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Alongside these public forums, the project has also helped organize smaller gatherings — kitchen parties, they call them — hoping to encourage political discussions in homes, among friends. 

Organizers say 250 of these kitchen parties will be held by the end of the fall.

It is unlikely these discussion groups will be generate any tangible legislative outcomes, at least in the short-term. But if nothing else they testify to an appetite for doing politics without parties. 

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He covers politics and social affairs.