Politics·Analysis

What's behind the Bloc's election gambit

There doesn't seem to be much of an upside for the Bloc Québécois if it succeeds in forcing a new election. So why is it threatening one?

Yves-François Blanchet's threat of an election is risky — especially if one actually happens

Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet says his party will try to bring down the government this fall, but he will need the support of the Conservatives and New Democrats to do it. (Adrian Wyld / Canadian Press)

Why would Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, be willing to defeat the Liberal government and send the country to the polls in the midst of a pandemic?

He says he's seen enough. If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Katie Telford, the prime minister's chief of staff, don't resign over what he deems the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and, in light of the WE Charity controversy, taxpayer dollars, he'll do what he can to put them out of a job himself.

Of course, it's possible it's all about the principle of the thing. Blanchet says it is not his party's "first choice" to go to the polls.

"I'm giving no consideration to the positive numbers we're seeing recently, but we think it is necessary," he said. 

Despite that assurance, it might be possible that some political calculations are indeed being made as well. This is politics, after all, and there's nothing more political than an election.

But it's not entirely clear that the Bloc Québécois has much to gain from one.

After nearly a decade in the wilderness following the 2011 federal election, the Bloc returned in strength to the House of Commons last October with 32 seats and 32.5 per cent of the vote in Quebec. In a minority Parliament, the Bloc has a lot of sway — the Liberals need the co-operation of one of the three recognized opposition parties to pass legislation. The Bloc has used that leverage several times already.

But polls suggest that if an election were held today the Bloc would be unlikely to improve its position in any significant way. In fact, the Bloc could find itself losing the balance of power it currently enjoys.

According to the CBC's Poll Tracker, an aggregation of all publicly available polling data, the Bloc has 32 per cent support in Quebec. It trails the Liberals by two percentage points, precisely where things stood in the last election. Though the Bloc is up about 3.5 points since the end of June, current support levels suggest that the two parties would likely emerge from another election with as many seats as they have today.

At least, in Quebec. Outside of Quebec, the Liberals could win more seats thanks to a drop in support for the Conservatives, who have yet to recover from a post-election slump.

The outcome of their leadership race, which will conclude next weekend, is unlikely to change their lot in the short term. A recent Léger poll found that neither Peter MacKay nor Erin O'Toole, the two front-runners to become the next party leader, performed better than the baseline of Conservative support.

If this means the Liberals could manage to squeak by with a majority government, the Bloc would lose its leverage in Parliament — even if they gained a few more seats.

Quebecers see WE, COVID-19 differently

But there are two factors that contribute to a great deal of uncertainty about how another campaign could unfold — COVID-19 and the WE controversy. In Quebec, there are signs that the Liberals are particularly vulnerable on both counts.

The WE controversy is seen more harshly in Quebec than in most parts of the country. With the exception of Alberta and the Prairies, where the Conservatives dominate already, Quebecers are the most likely Canadians to say that the WE controversy has worsened their views of Trudeau and that the affair is a serious matter, according to polls by Léger and the Angus Reid Institute.

Polls suggest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is faring worse in Quebec than in some other parts of the country because of the WE Charity controversy. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The potential blowback for forcing an election in the midst of a pandemic could be less in Quebec than elsewhere. Léger finds that just 43 per cent of Quebecers say they are afraid of contracting COVID-19, at least 10 points lower than fears in any other part of the country, and that Quebecers are the most likely Canadians to say that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

The biggest gap between approval of how federal and provincial governments have handled COVID-19 is in Quebec, where Premier François Legault has received more support than Trudeau.

Léger also found that 52 per cent of Quebecers support having another election (it was 67 per cent among Bloc voters). Only in Alberta and the Prairies was that number higher.

Blanchet pointed to these poll results in justifying his stance. Weighing the risks, he asked "which is more dangerous, the mismanagement of a crisis or taking the time to change the people who are managing the crisis?"

Don't need an election to score some points

It's the other opposition parties that will have to answer that question. Without the backing of the Conservatives and New Democrats, any non-confidence motion presented by the Bloc will go nowhere.

That might be the political calculation that carries the most weight.

In the early months of the minority government, Blanchet proved to be a helpful ally to Trudeau's Liberals. When the pandemic first struck, the Bloc and the NDP teamed up with the Liberals to block Conservative efforts to hold regular sittings of the House of Commons when Canadians were being told to hunker down in their homes.

By declaring its intention to defeat the government, however, the Bloc has definitively decoupled itself from the Liberals. The pressure is now on the other parties.

The NDP is in a tough spot, as it doesn't have much cash on hand for another campaign. Since NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called a Bloc MP racist in June, Blanchet appears to have little time for the New Democrats, calling the party "unworthy" this week. Forcing a choice on Singh between a financially crippling election campaign and propping up the Liberals is unlikely to cost Blanchet much sleep.

The Conservatives, who Blanchet called more "ferocious" in their opposition to the Liberals than his own party, will be forced to make good on their bravado.

If the Conservatives waffle, Blanchet can claim his party is the only real opposition to the Liberals. If they don't, the prospect of another election campaign against a Conservative leader who does not speak French very well is one Blanchet is likely to welcome.

There is little risk for the Bloc if an election is avoided — though, as a party that is ideologically (as well as mathematically) unable to form government, the Bloc has traditionally done best in the role of a constructive rather than obstructive opposition party.

An election, however, is much more of a gamble. Campaigns still matter — particularly during a pandemic when much can change over five or six weeks (more so in the shadow of a looming second wave). Blanchet has also faced anonymous allegations of sexual misconduct, though this has not appeared to have any impact on his public standing in Quebec. He can't be certain things will stay that way.

It's a risky gambit, to be sure. But if an election is avoided it won't be the first time that sabre-rattling hasn't dislodged a minority government, which isn't always the actual goal. At some point, though, a phoney war comes to an end — and someone loses.

Polls suggest Conservative leadership front runners Erin O'Toole, left, and Peter MacKay, right, are unlikely to give their party an immediate boost in support. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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