Analysis

A eulogy for Quebec's often strange and sometimes silly election campaign

In its last week, Quebec’s election campaign was dominated by a series of personality-driven side shows. But amid all the white noise, a series of weighty issues remains on the table.

On the final day of campaigning, voters should look beyond the distractions and consider some serious issues

CAQ Leader Francois Legault at a campaign stop on Saturday, Sept. 28. (Radio-Canada)

Join us tonight at 6 p.m. for a live election Q&A with our political and polling experts Jonathan Montpetit and Éric Grenier on our Facebook page.


Quebec is having a historic election, despite its best efforts.

Sovereignty is, for the first time in two generations, an afterthought for most voters; young parties are tossing aside established ones, and a record number of women are seeking office.

All are important benchmarks that suggest Quebecers could be witnessing a fundamental realignment of political power in the province.

And it's happening even though this long campaign, which ends with Monday's vote, has been without a defining issue or unifying theme.

For a moment, around the time of the three leaders' debates, it appeared as though immigration would be the altar upon which the next government would be determined.

The Coalition Avenir Québec had proposed a significant reduction in immigration levels, and additional language and values requirements to the citizenship process.

This helped drive discussions not just about immigration, but the economy (how to deal with Quebec's labour shortage) and education (how to improve the quality of French-language lessons), as well.

As scrutiny heightened around the CAQ's proposals, party leader François Legault was unable to provide consistent answers about the details of his plan. The party's poll numbers took a hit.

But the immigration issue failed to hold the province's attention. The final week of the campaign morphed into a silly season of controversies.

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard was campaigning this weekend in Saint-Charles-de-Bellechasse, Que. In its last week, the campaign appeared to devolve into a series of side shows about personalities. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

First, there was Philippe Couillard's insistence that a family of three could get by spending only $75 per week on groceries.

The ensuing debate was more about whether the brain-surgeon-turned-premier was out of touch, and less about the 14.5 per cent of Quebec households that live below the poverty line.

Then things got retro. The Parti Québécois devoted several days to portraying its sovereigntist rival, Québec Solidaire, as a Marxist front.

That interlude ended with PQ leader Jean-François Lisée admitting he was once a Maoist.

And a Liberal MNA leaked damaging information to his party's rivals. And Legault's wife called the prime minister "incompetent." And, and, and...

Now suddenly — or finally — time is up and we have to make a decision.

Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé has seen support for her party rise as Quebecers experiment with different options for change. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

The voter as consumer

But even with more options at the ballot box, Quebecers aren't having an easier time deciding who they should vote for.

Instead, they've joined voters in the rest of the democratic world in displaying more indecisiveness than ever before.

They're apt to change their minds over the course of the campaign, pollsters note, or wait until the last minute before settling on an option.

That makes electoral outcomes harder to predict. Even the best pollsters and forecasters in the province are hedging their bets about what will happen Monday, given the Liberals and CAQ are polling at about even.  

"This unpredictability is something new and it's happening now because party loyalty barely exists anymore," Christian Bourque, vice-president of the polling firm Léger, said in a recent interview.

In the past, voters were locked in their ways because of family traditions or their socioeconomic position.

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée, with deputy leader Véronique Hivon, in Acton Vale on Friday. After attacking the rival Québec Solidaire as Marxists, Lisée admitted he had once been as Maoist. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Now they can be likened to consumers in a grocery store. "Political parties are like brands of soap," said Bourque.

As party loyalty has declined, strategic voting has increased — and voters have become ambivalent.

Studies have shown there is a correlation between strategic voting and political cynicism, Bourque said.

At the same time, party platforms have become less relevant and voters are swayed by emotional impressions of political leaders as opposed to their policy positions. Some political scientists call this video-politics

Big questions

In its last week, Quebec's election campaign appeared to devolve into a series of side shows about personalities.

But amid all the white noise, a series of important issues remain on the table.

Take, for example, the question of whether minority rights should trump majority rule.

During the final debate, Legault said he would prevent police officers from wearing the hijab, saying polls suggest a majority of Quebecers share his opinion.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, on the other hand, said he would ignore popular sentiment to uphold the rights of the minority.

Then there is the matter of intergenerational justice. In an a situation of limited resources, what proportion should be allocated for elderly care versus youth education?

Another version of the same question might be: Is Quebec's ecological debt, to use a QS term, a more pressing priority than its financial obligations?

And let's not forget a classic point of contention: the role and size of the state. Both the CAQ and Liberals favour lower taxes and fewer social services. QS and the PQ take the opposite stand.

The election campaign may have suffered a bout of stupidity, but Quebecers are still grappling with critical questions — and voters need to be smart when they decide on Monday where the province goes next.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

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