Jean-François Lisée's leadership review tests reason vs. passion for Parti Québécois

The first order of business at this weekend's PQ policy convention is a confidence vote in the party leader. As Nancy Wood sees it, whether they like Jean-François Lisée's go-slow approach to sovereignty or not, Péquistes would be crazy to eject him.

PQ grassroots to hold confidence vote at weekend policy convention in Montreal

Jean-François Lisée speaks to supporters after he was elected on Oct. 7, 2016 in Lévis, Que. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

On Saturday, Jean-François Lisée will face a leadership review at the Parti Québécois policy convention.

There is no reason to think he will lose the vote.

The PQ would be out of its mind to eject him and think a new leader (who would be their fourth since 2014) would be a better plan, heading into next year's provincial election.

That said, the PQ is a party made up of members with dreams, goals and fervent political passion — and logic doesn't always win the day.

So party organizers, and Lisée himself, are at this moment probably trying to practise mindful meditation, breathing slowly and visualizing a successful vote on Saturday.

The PQ is, after all, the party that is known for devouring its leaders.

Even the emblematic René Lévesque was eventually driven from the party he founded.

Chance to chide the leader

This weekend's policy convention is meant to be a PQ family gathering of sorts: the leader, top party organizers, members of the National Assembly and ordinary Péquistes from riding associations across the province will all be there.

Parties have policy conventions for a couple of reasons — mainly, to allow grassroots members, through their riding associations, to put forward proposals that could become part of the party's electoral platform. 

The other reason for a policy convention is to bring dissension out into the open — to allow the rank and file to enjoy a moment of real power, where they can stand at a microphone and berate the leader, if they so choose. 

Saturday's leadership review is happening because a significant number of ridings — around 30 of 125 — demanded one.

It is their way of calling Lisée onto the carpet, admonishing him publicly for what they see as his failings.

Referendum still years away

Lisée's principal failing, in the eyes of many, is his insistence that he will not hold a referendum in his first term as premier, if the PQ wins the election next year.

Instead, Lisée has argued, he will talk up sovereignty and get Quebecers mentally prepared for a referendum in 2022.

That is a long time to wait for an ageing membership. 

A 2016 study for the McGill-based Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship suggested the PQ will die out as political force in Quebec within 20 years.

Younger sovereignists appear to have more affinity with either Option Nationale, an upstart nationalist party, or Québec Solidaire, the small, social democratic party with three sitting MNAs.

Those two parties are currently in talks to merge, which the PQ has to see as a threat of some kind.

Lisée would not be the first leader to be dressed down by the party faithful. 

Lucien Bouchard, the man who swooped in from Ottawa and nearly pulled off a referendum win for them in 1995, got a mere 76 per cent confidence vote the following year. He considered quitting.

Four years later, in 2000, the party voted 91 per cent in favour of his leadership.
Former Parti Québécois leader Bernard Landry resigned on June 4, 2005, his wife Chantal Renaud at his side. (Clement Allard/Canadian Press)

In 2005, Bernard Landry made the mistake of setting the level of support that he expected from PQ members at 80 per cent.

The vote came in at 76 per cent. There were enough other candidates waiting in the wings — notably André Boisclair — that Landry felt the pressure to bow out.

Both Boisclair and his successor, Pauline Marois, resigned as leader after losing an election. 
Pauline Marois faced pressure to resign throughout the year before her 2012 electoral victory, even after scoring 93 per cent in a leadership review in early 2011.

Marois did survive one leadership review during her tenure, with a stellar score of 93 per cent.

But party organizers worked hard to achieve that, carefully polling members before the confidence vote to try to defuse any pockets of dissent or anger.

Leadership races take time and money

This time, by all accounts, the party has not had the resources to seek out those who would jettison Lisée and start afresh.

Instead, organizers have put the word out that this policy convention has to be based on realism: policies need to be economically viable and politically palatable to the middle class, and the party has neither the time nor the money to engage in another leadership race.

Leadership races do take money and time. Sometimes lots of time.

Look at the federal NDP: after their 2015 trouncing, New Democrats held a leadership review and handed Tom Mulcair a brutal 48 per cent vote of confidence. He announced he would step down.

It is now 2017, and the NDP still doesn't have a new leader.

With Quebec's next provincial election just a year away, the PQ does not have that kind of time.

PQ leader Jean-François Lisée responds to questions prior to a caucus meeting on Aug. 30. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Lisée has been carefully strategic, wisely not setting any bar for the vote. In fact, he has told reporters he's seen the PQ overcome great divisions at policy conventions and pull together admirably to fight an election.

Still, in politics, any vote below 66 per cent would likely seriously undermine his leadership.

Party members may want to use the vote to show they are angry about Lisée's temporary shift away from sovereignty, but they likely don't want an actual leadership vacuum at this time.

The final vote result will determine whether reason or passion prevailed. And whether Lisée can breathe easily, at least until next year's election.


Nancy Wood


Nancy Wood is a copy editor at CBC Montreal. She has worked as a national TV reporter and radio host for CBC. She began her career covering politics for the Montreal Gazette and the Toronto Star and was a senior writer in Maclean's Magazine's Parliamentary bureau.