Montreal·Analysis

Opposition parties in Quebec struggle as election looms and National Assembly resumes

As the National Assembly resumes sitting for the first time in this election year, opposition parties see an opening to attack the stumbling CAQ over its management of the pandemic after it abandoned its idea of a tax for the unvaccinated. But they're focusing on other issues to try to stand out.

Despite slip in polls and flip-flop on no-vax tax, François Legault's CAQ is still firmly in control

Quebec Premier François Legault can expect to be hammered by all three opposition parties in the National Assembly over his government's recent pandemic stumbles as the legislative session resumes today. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

As Quebec's National Assembly resumes its session today, opposition parties see a new opportunity to attack François Legault's CAQ government on its management of the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, but so far none has emerged as a clear challenger.

Before the session even began today, news broke that Legault had caved to opposition pressure and decided to scrap his proposed health tax for unvaccinated Quebecers.

That is likely a response to the Coalition Avenir Québec government experiencing a rare dip in popularity over the last month as the fifth wave of the pandemic took hold.

In addition to the backtrack on the health tax, Legault imposed and then withdrew an unpopular curfew and introduced more lockdown measures. The health-care system has been forced to postpone thousand of surgeries. His director of public health resigned

Sensing vulnerability, the opposition has pounced. 

At pre-session caucus meetings last week, Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade suggested the CAQ was being "paternalistic," and governing based on polls.

Québec Solidaire house leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois accused Legault of "bluffing" his way through the pandemic, and Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon said the CAQ was clearly not basing its decisions on science.

But so far, no one party in the National Assembly appears to be benefiting from Legault's recent malaise. They're all relatively stagnant in the opinion polls.

The main beneficiary of Legault's slide seems to be the fledgling Conservative Party of Quebec, led by former radio host Éric Duhaime. The party currently holds one seat in the National Assembly — after Claire Samson crossed the floor from the CAQ. But Samson has announced she will not run again.

The provincial conservatives have positioned themselves far to the right of the CAQ by opposing all public health restrictions related to the pandemic.

This leaves the other opposition parties in a bit of a bind.  Even if they collectively manage to weaken the CAQ by attacking its record on the pandemic, they still need to differentiate themselves from each other if they hope to make any gains. 

Liberals pivot from hydrogen to attacking 3rd link

Official Opposition Liberal Dominique Anglade and her party have been struggling through an identity crisis for months.

Anglade's signature announcement at last fall's party convention was that a Liberal government would nationalize the production of green hydrogen in Quebec as part of a $100-million environmental plan.

Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade has promised to scrap the CAQ's multibillion dollar plan to build a tunnel between Quebec city and Lévis. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The idea landed with a thud, and Anglade hasn't talked about it much since. 

She tried something new last week, pledging — if elected — to scrap the Legault government's controversial plan to build a new $10-billion tunnel between Quebec City and Lévis.  Anglade said she would instead devote the entire sum to health and education.

Both the PQ and Québec Solidaire also oppose the CAQ's tunnel plan, but neither has promised to scrap the project altogether.

It's a risky move for Anglade, given the Liberals hold no seats in the Quebec City area and are hoping to make gains.  But it may pay off as the project faces increasing scrutiny and criticism from environmental groups

Québec Solidaire seizes on Bill 21

Québec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois also pivoted to another issue last week.

He pledged that a Québec Solidaire government would make it possible for teachers in Quebec to wear religious symbols at work, by repealing part of the CAQ's controversial secularism law, Bill 21.

Quebec Solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois says his party would scrap the part of bill 21 that prevents teachers from wearing religious symbols on the job. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

Nadeau-Dubois stopped short of saying his party would lift the restrictions for other government workers affected by Bill 21 — such as judges, prosecutors and police officers — but it's the furthest any opposition party in Quebec has gone in opposing the law. 

The PQ supports the law, and Anglade has been vague about her intentions.

This is also a risky move, as the CAQ has continually defended Bill 21 by noting that a majority of Quebecers elected them on a promise to implement it.  But Bill 21's popularity has also recently dropped, and Nadeau-Dubois may see the issue as the best chance to distinguish Quebec Solidaire from the other opposition parties.

PQ tries to out-CAQ the CAQ

Of all the opposition parties in the National Assembly, the Parti Québécois and its leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon have struggled the most to eke out a distinctive identity.

Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, leader of the Parti Québécois, said his party will distinguish itself by focusing on serious public policy proposals. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

St-Pierre Plamondon's problem is not that his party is too similar to the other opposition parties, but that it's often too similar to the CAQ in focusing mainly on French-language and identity issues.

That often leaves little space for the PQ to stand out. The party is now polling lower than Duhaime's conservatives.

Even when the PQ wins, it can sometimes lose.  For example, the party has been hammering a CAQ plan to expand the English-language Montreal Cégep Dawson College, arguing that would contribute to the decline of the French language in Montreal.

Monday, the CAQ announced it was rethinking the plan, essentially stealing the PQ's argument and taking the wind out of the its sails.

Plamondon insisted last week that what set the PQ apart is its focus on serious ideas.

"We are in a different mentality. We are unique in the sense that we care about bringing forward something that is intelligent and useful in terms of public policy," Plamondon said.

The National Assembly session resumes later today and will continue until June.

Under Quebec's fixed election date law an election will happen on or before Oct. 3.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steve Rukavina

Journalist

Steve Rukavina has been with CBC News in Montreal since 2002. In 2019, he won a RTDNA award for continuing coverage of sexual misconduct allegations at Concordia University. He's also a co-creator of the podcast, Montreapolis. Before working in Montreal he worked as a reporter for CBC in Regina and Saskatoon. You can reach him at stephen.j.rukavina@cbc.ca.

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