Quebec election a boon for Harper, better for his opponents

Party leaders in Ottawa largely kept their mouths shut during the recent Quebec election for fear of jinxing the federalist cause. Now they all want to be Philippe Couillard's new best friend.

Mulcair worked with Quebec's new premier, while Trudeau can point to Couillard as a fellow Liberal

Quebec's next premier, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, may find himself much sought after in the run-up to the federal election next year. (Jacques Boissinot / Canadian Press)

Quebec elections are unlike any other in Canada, if only because the main federal party leaders can agree to keep quiet for fear of inciting the sovereigntist cause.

That self-imposed mutual silence has ended now that voters in Quebec returned the provincial Liberals to power, in the process rejecting both the Parti Quebecois and another referendum on independence.

"It's a good day for Quebec,'' a relaxed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau told reporters first thing in the morning.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair didn't rush before the microphones to comment, his more leisurely approach perhaps befitting the leader with the most seats in Quebec and, therefore, the higher profile in promoting Quebec's interests in Ottawa.

Then Quebec environment minister Thomas Mulcair, right, and then Liberal health minister Philippe Couillard respond to press questions in the Gaspé in November 2004 about arsenic contamination in Murdochville. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

Stephen Harper, characteristically, saved his reaction for the daily question period.

"All of us, in all parties have noted that Quebecers have rejected the holding of another referendum and want the government focused on job creation and the economy. And we'll work with the government of Quebec to do that.''

Harper didn't mention that he'd also called the incoming premier, Philippe Couillard. His office later  released a brief summary of the conversation.

The two spoke of working together on mutual priorities "including the economy and job creation," the release said. And the two leaders "highlighted the importance of a strong Quebec within a united Canada and of the firm commitment to Canada they both share."

It wasn't exactly a stampede to share in the credit for Couillard's win, but don't mistake that for a lack of intent.

Little for Harper

When the Quebec campaign began that first week in March, the polls suggested a majority for PQ leader Pauline Marois, with the accompanying prospect of incessant demands for more power, backed by the threat of a sovereignty referendum.

That outcome promised the kind of political uncertainty Harper has never faced in office, and it would have been a huge blow to the work of branding Canada as a stable and secure place to invest.

Today, Conservatives are both relieved and even privately boastful at the unexpected outcome. They credit Harper's laissez-faire approach to Quebec during the past 18 months of PQ rule — no special status and no concessions — as a significant factor in undermining the desire for sovereignty.

Of course that ignores Harper's previous efforts to help the provincial Liberals before they lost power in 2012, providing compensation for harmonizing the GST and provincial sales tax, and with even more money to address the so-called fiscal imbalance.

In reality, Harper is the only one of the three main party leaders with little to gain politically from Couillard's win, even if Quebec voters did signal Monday that their priorities of jobs, the economy and reducing government debt are in line with those of other Canadians and with the prime minister's own agenda.

The Conservatives hold only a handful of seats in Quebec, and the party is the least organized in the province.

Harper's charted course to a majority doesn’t run through Quebec. He places far more emphasis on Ontario and the West.

Even so, the tools of government give Harper considerable leverage if he chooses to really work with Couillard, especially when it comes to addressing Quebec's pressing need to rebuild roads, bridges, hospitals and other public infrastructure.

Mulcair-Trudeau showdown

For the federal New Democrats and Liberals — both led by Quebec MPs ​— the stakes are much higher as Quebec will be a prime battleground.

For many observers, the dismissal of the PQ helps the New Democrats most heading into next year's federal election.

New best friends? Justin Trudeau and Philippe Couillard meet at the provincial legislature in April 2013. (Clement Allard / Canadian Press)

The NDP surged to Official Opposition status on the strength of a stunning breakthrough in Quebec in 2011.

That breakthrough under former leader Jack Layton came in large part by winning over previous supporters of the Bloc Quebecois. The bulk of NDP seats in the province came from the Bloc, including the one held by former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe.

The PQ defeat, which takes sovereignty off the table for the foreseeable future, also suggests the NDP can probably continue to count on former Bloc supporters in 2015.

Mulcair, of course, isn't just from Quebec. He's a former Liberal cabinet minister in Quebec and a former colleague of Couillard. He made sure to mention all of that Tuesday.

Trudeau, on the other hand, loses the chance to play the national unity card with the PQ out, though it didn't stop the Liberals from taking a shot at Mulcair on Monday, calling on him ''to confirm that all his Quebec MPs support federalist parties in this crucial election.''

But there are other factors that suggest an opportunity for Liberals to make significant gains in a province where they used to be almost the sole federalist choice on the ballot.

For example, some Liberals suggest this week's election signals a generational change in Quebec, a triumph of younger voters focussed on economic matters over the sovereigntist aspirations of a generation of aging baby boomers – a shift that benefits the youthful Trudeau over his more seasoned opponents.

So the battles lines are clear.

Trudeau gets a chance to rebuild the Liberal base in a province that once gave the party, led by his own father and Jean Chretien, a solid block of seats. Mulcair is handed an opportunity to solidify his party's still untested dominance among nationalist supporters.

And Quebec sovereignty likely becomes a non-factor in the rest of Canada.

One race is over. Another begins.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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