Undecided and interchangeable: An election in search of an identity in Quebec

With the CAQ and Liberal swapping candidates, the difference between them are not always clear. And that makes for a volatile electorate as the campaign kicks off today.

With the CAQ and Liberals swapping candidates, the differences between them are not always clear

The election campaign begins with Coalition Avenir Québec, led by François Legault, atop most polls. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The Quebec 2018 election begins today. Follow our coverage online, radio and TV including our reporters with each party. Join the conversation on CBC Montreal's Facebook page.

In those hot and steamy days before the launch of the provincial election campaign, Quebec's political parties were rushing about to unveil their latest acquisitions.

For the incumbent Liberals, their biggest prize was Enrico Ciccone, one-time NHL pugilist turned radio host, who will run for the party in the West Island riding of Marquette.

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The Coalition Avenir Québec also had its share of star candidates to show off in recent days, Ian Lafrenière, the former public face of the Montreal police force, among them.

That party began the summer by announcing an impressive group of recruits who included prominent seniors' advocate Marguerite Blais and Nadine Girault, a banking and investment executive.

Star candidates are, of course, an essential component of the modern campaign. They can give a fresh look to older parties and make newer ones appear as though they're ready to govern.

But they are also part of a new phenomenon in Quebec politics: the two most popular parties in the province have ideological outlooks that are, apparently, interchangeable. 

The latest crop of star candidates for both the Liberals and the CAQ include a significant number who once either flirted with, or actively supported, the other side.

Quebec Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard has two ministers in his cabinet who are former CAQ candidates. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Blais was a popular minister in Jean Charest's Liberal government. Girault was a Liberal donor who had hoped to run for the party in a 2016 byelection.

Ciccone, according to Radio-Canada, initially reached out to the CAQ before the Liberals offered him a safe seat (and unceremoniously dumped their incumbent to do so).

And of course the Liberal front benches have two former CAQists — Health Minister Gaétan Barrette ran unsuccessfully for Legault's party in 2012, as did Economy Minister Dominique Anglade.

Given this lack of distinction, it is not surprising that nearly half of voters, according to one recent poll, have yet to make up their mind about what they'll do on election day, 39 days from now.

Personality over policy?

The proliferation of swip-swapping between parties can make it seem as though there is little that separates their visions for the province.

Now, it might be a good thing. A sign of bipartisanship, you might say, or the absence of the polarization that mars politics in the U.S.

But come election time, it forces us to ask a more troubling question: is the true difference between the CAQ and Liberals one of personnel, not policy?

To be fair, the two parties disagree on a number of issues. Yet, these can often appear as differences in degree rather than kind.

The CAQ, for instance, wants to abolish school boards, something Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard swears he will never do.

His government, though, attempted to do away with school-board elections and curtail their power before scrapping the reform bill in 2016.

Legault has managed to attract a number of former Quebec Liberals to run for his party. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The parties probably most resemble each other on economic issues. The Liberals embarked on a dramatic cost-cutting program at the outset of their mandate, and the CAQ too speaks about reducing the size of the state.

The Liberals managed to offer a series of modest tax cuts during their time in government. The CAQ promises even more, if elected.

Volatile politics

So the election campaign begins today, with undecided voters and interchangeable parties; it is an election in search of an identity.

Contributing to this sentiment is the petering out of sovereignty as a divisive issue, as the Parti Québécois has forsworn holding a referendum until 2022 and is, in any case, polling at a distant third place.

It all can make for volatile politics.

It creates an incentive for politicians to appeal to emotion over reason and personality over substance, as they wander about the province looking for support.

That means more work for voters looking to make an honest choice about who will lead them for the next four years.

But to ease that burden, here are some questions that might be worth asking, and which will guide our coverage over the next 39 days:

  • What do we need for the future?
  • What can we afford?
  • Whose well-being are we willing to sacrifice in pursuit of our self-interest?

Should our politicians grow desperate for votes, that last question will become increasingly important.

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