Quebec, N.B. elections show voters are open to something new

Voters in Canada appear to be in the mood for something a little different.

New parties of both the left and right have made breakthroughs as old parties fall back

François Legault formed the Coalition Avenir Québec in 2011. He won a majority government in his third election as leader on Monday. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Voters in Canada appear to be in the mood for something a little different.

In two provincial elections in as many weeks, significant breakthroughs were made by parties formed so recently that, if they were voters themselves, they'd be too young to cast a ballot.

The older, established parties — the ones that have a history of governing — have taken a hit as a result. If a wave of anti-establishment voting is washing over the country, what impact could that have on next year's federal election?

In last week's provincial vote in New Brunswick, two small parties emerged as kingmakers. The People's Alliance — a conservative populist party — and the Greens each won three seats, enough to give them a lot of sway in a legislature otherwise made up of 22 Progressive Conservatives and 21 Liberals.

Both parties were contesting only their third elections and, between them, had only ever won a single seat in their previous two attempts. But 24.5 per cent of New Brunswickers cast a ballot for either the People's Alliance or the Greens — a remarkable result in a province that, with the exception of one election, has never elected more than one MLA at a time from outside the Liberal and PC parties in nearly a century.

In last week's provincial election in New Brunswick, and in his third election as leader, People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin finally won a seat, as did two other People's Alliance candidates. (CBC)

On Monday, Quebecers gave François Legault's centre-right Coalition Avenir Québec a majority government with 37.4 per cent of the vote. It was a historic result. The last time a party other than the Liberals or the Parti Québécois won an election in Quebec was in 1966.

But alongside the CAQ's decisive victory, a left-wing sovereignist party, Québec Solidaire, also made significant inroads. Formed in 2006, Québec Solidaire captured 16.1 per cent of the vote and elected 10 MNAs, pushing the PQ to fourth-party status in the National Assembly — a position the PQ hasn't held since it was a new party itself in 1970.

In Quebec, both the Liberals and the PQ received their lowest share of the vote in any election in their history. In New Brunswick, the combined score for the Liberals and PCs has only been lower once before — in 1991.

It all foreshadows what could be a period of considerable political disruption nationwide.

Something new on the left, something populist on the right

In New Brunswick and Quebec, political parties on the left were able to win new seats by offering to do politics differently.

Québec Solidaire was able to win seats from both the Liberals and PQ with a very left-wing platform. One factor in the party's success undoubtedly was its co-spokesperson Manon Massé (the party has two 'leaders', one male and one female), who impressed in two French-language debates by keeping her cool while the other three leaders bickered. Clips of her rolling her eyes or bowing her head in frustration became instant social media memes among her supporters.

Party co-spokesperson Manon Massé has been credited with Québec Solidaire's breakthrough in Monday's provincial election. The party was founded in 2006. (Peter McCabe/Canadian Press )

The N.B. Greens capitalized on dissatisfaction with the two old-line parties, rather than any particular surge in environmental concerns in the province, to steal two seats away from the Liberals.

The B.C. Greens already hold the balance of power in British Columbia after last year's election. Meanwhile, Ontario Green Leader Mike Schreiner won his seat in June's provincial vote — the first Green candidate to do so in the province's history — and the Greens in Prince Edward Island were leading in a recent poll.

If the federal Greens can also tap into voter dissatisfaction, they could make breakthroughs of their own next year. But Elizabeth May has been the leader of the party since 2006, making her the longest-serving leader of any provincial or federal party in the country. That might make it more difficult to present her and her party as the breath of fresh air voters were attracted to in New Brunswick and Quebec.

Last week, N.B. Green Leader David Coon led his party to three seats in its third election in the province.

The New Democrats could move unabashedly leftwards to differentiate themselves from the federal Liberals and Conservatives and align themselves with the youthful and enthusiastic base of Québec Solidaire. But QS still did worse in Quebec than the NDP did in the province in the 2015 federal election — and it remains a sovereignist party, which is an obvious no-go area for the NDP.

The CAQ and People's Alliance ran successful populist campaigns, promising to break the old, sclerotic patterns of each province's politics — the sovereignist-federalist divide in Quebec, the Liberal-PC duopoly in New Brunswick. What their proposals might have lacked in detail or practicality (think of the CAQ's immigration policy or the People's Alliance position on bilingualism) was more than made up for in their emotional appeal.

More disruption to come in 2019?

It is this strain that has the most potential to disrupt the 2019 federal election. The New Democrats are struggling under Jagmeet Singh and, despite the party's name, the NDP is far from a 'new' party. The Greens are an established brand at the federal level and would be unlikely to have an enormous impact on the results, even if they steal away a few more seats. Three or four MPs in a House of Commons of 338 can only do so much.

But the People's Party formed by ex-Conservative MP Maxime Bernier could still cause some trouble. Though it has been dismissed by his former colleagues as an incoherent vanity project, new figures announced by Bernier this week suggest the party is off to a decent start.

In an email blast to his followers, the Quebec MP claimed the People's Party has signed up 20,500 members already. That isn't an insignificant amount. The federal NDP, whose membership rolls include those of its provincial affiliates, had only 40,000 members at the beginning of its 2017 leadership race. The Conservatives had 100,000 members at the start of that year when they were in the midst of their own leadership contest.

People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier says he has raised $338,000 and signed up 20,500 members for his party. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Bernier also claims to have raised $338,000 in the five weeks since he left the Conservative Party — without being able to offer donors a tax credit. Extrapolated over a full year, it suggests the party could raise $3.5 million, putting it within range of the NDP and ahead of the Greens.

The People's Party still has a long way to go. Polls suggest that Bernier's appeal remains relatively limited, and there is no sign yet that a large number of people are reporting to pollsters their intention to vote for his party unprompted.

Local provincial politics played a decisive role in the success of these newer parties in the recent elections in Quebec and New Brunswick. But the results suggest that voters are ready and willing to abandon the old traditional parties in order to try something new.

There's an opportunity there. All that's left is for someone to grab it.


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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