Blocked by the Bloc: how Quebec voters could decide the timing of the next election
The Bloc is still taking seats off the table for the other parties, making a majority government harder to win
If there's a formula the Liberals are following to figure out when to call the next election, the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of vaccines and the party's standing in the polls likely would be the most important factors.
But they'll also have to consider where Quebec and the Bloc Québécois fit into the equation — because the Bloc is one of the biggest obstacles standing between the Liberals and a majority government.
Though all the federal party leaders have been insisting they don't want to hold an election in the middle of a pandemic, none of them are saying they'd go to any lengths to stop one from happening. This week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a radio station in Quebec that he would not rule out calling a vote in the spring if, in his estimation, the opposition parties are making Parliament unworkable.
The opposition parties have thrown the ball back into the prime minister's court, saying he has it within his power to find the common ground.
It's the normal back-and-forth of a minority Parliament in an abnormal time.
The easiest way for Trudeau to make Parliament work the way he would like would be to win a majority of seats for his party in the next election. The Liberals certainly are within striking distance of a majority government.
The Liberals are in the majority zone — barely
But they don't have much margin for error. If an election were held today, the Liberals likely would win around 171 seats, according to the Poll Tracker seat projection model. That's the bare minimum for a working majority in the House of Commons.
There's more of a downside than an upside for the Liberals in the seat count. The likely range of outcomes puts them as high as 186 seats — two more seats than the Liberals won in 2015 — and as low as 146, which would be 11 fewer seats than the Liberals won in 2019.
Making this situation even more precarious for the Liberals is the assumption that the polls aren't overestimating Liberal support or underestimating Conservative support in Alberta and Saskatchewan, as they did in the last election. If the polls are off again in these provinces, the Liberals have even less of a margin for error.
It all serves to increase the importance of the 26 to 35 seats the Bloc Québécois likely would win if an election were held today. Those are seats that the Liberals would very much prefer to have in play for themselves.
Bloc could block a majority
A strong Bloc has been an obstacle to majority government in the past. Parties have only won a majority of seats twice in the six elections held since the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance united the right in 2003. On both occasions — 2011 and 2015 — the formation of a majority government coincided with the Bloc's support collapsing.
Unless that happens again, the Liberals will need to go through the Bloc to win some of the seats they need to secure a majority government. The ones in Quebec the Liberals came closest to winning in 2019 were located in the suburbs around the island of Montreal and in central Quebec.
Those are predominantly francophone regions of the province where the Bloc has solid support.
According to a poll by Léger in December (party support in the province has not shifted much since then), the Bloc held a 13-point lead among francophones. In a survey by Mainstreet Research, the Bloc had a three-point lead in the suburbs around Montreal — a notable advantage considering the poll recorded lower support for the Bloc in the province as a whole than other recent surveys.
If the Bloc is able to hold these seats, the Liberals will have to seek gains elsewhere. They don't have a lot of options — they're already hitting their ceiling in Ontario and there are few seats to win back in Atlantic Canada. The lead they have in British Columbia now might also be chipped away by the presence of a popular NDP premier — John Horgan, who boasts the highest approval ratings in the country, according to a poll by the Angus Reid Institute.
While he doesn't have the same ratings as Horgan, Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet is still an asset to his party. A recent survey by Abacus Data suggests 36 per cent of Quebecers have a positive impression of Blanchet, with 28 per cent saying they have a negative impression.
That isn't as good as the numbers for Trudeau (42 per cent positive, 31 per cent negative in Quebec) or NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh (34 to 20 per cent), but it is considerably better than Erin O'Toole's polling performance. Just 15 per cent of Quebecers have a positive impression of the Conservative leader, while 29 per cent have a negative one.
The Conservatives and Bloc are competing for some of the same nationalist voters in Quebec — a comparison that currently bodes well for the Bloc.
Bloc, Conservatives chasing the CAQ vote
Not only are the two parties competing for the same voters, they've also competed to be seen as aligned with Quebec Premier François Legault.
It's a smart strategy. According to the Angus Reid Institute, Legault's approval sits at 62 per cent, making him one of the most popular premiers in Canada. That rating has slid a little bit over the last few months, but he has rated over 60 per cent for most of the time since he became premier in the fall of 2018. That suggests his popularity isn't driven by the pandemic, as apparently has been the case for some other premiers.
The Coalition Avenir Québec he leads is also very popular. The last two polls in the province gave the CAQ a commanding 27-point lead over the second-place Quebec Liberals. The party is particularly dominant in some of the regions where the Bloc holds seats — and where Trudeau's Liberals need to make gains.
The Bloc shares a lot of voters with the CAQ. According to Léger, 36 per cent of CAQ voters support the Bloc, while 31 per cent support the federal Liberals. A majority of Bloc voters back the CAQ rather than the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, suggesting Blanchet has more to gain by taking a nationalist approach.
Not surprisingly, Blanchet has often tried to appear like the voice of Legault in the House of Commons — and has taken every opportunity to argue that O'Toole isn't.
A blue-on-blue fight for Quebec
Earlier this month, the House defeated a private member's bill presented by the Bloc that would require Quebecers to file a single tax return to the province, rather than filing one to the Canada Revenue Agency and one to Revenu Québec. The idea of a single tax return is something the Legault government supports.
Though the Liberals also voted against the bill, the Bloc singled out the Conservatives for "turning their backs on Quebec" by voting to defeat it. And this week, Blanchet called Conservative MPs' attempts to extend debate on amendments to the medical assistance in dying legislation "ideological obstruction" and teamed up with the Liberals on Thursday to shut down debate and get them passed.
Seeing these two parties squabble in public isn't a bad thing for the Liberals if it means the Conservatives won't be able to make inroads in Quebec. But it doesn't help them if the ultimate outcome is the Bloc taking as many as half the seats in the province off the table.
Of course, the Bloc's ability to frustrate the Liberals' efforts to win a majority isn't necessarily a deal-breaker when it comes to calling an early election.
If the Liberals improve their seat totals outside of Quebec, the result might be a chastened Conservative Party thrust into another divisive leadership race. That's undoubtedly something the Liberals could live with — even if it meant having to muddle through another minority Parliament.