Less than two years after it was kicked out from power, the Quebec Liberals have been returned to government with a crushing victory in the Quebec provincial election. With over 1.7-million votes (41% of the total), the Liberals took 70 of the province’s 125 seats. The 33-day campaign started with premier Pauline Marois confident that her Parti Québécois would be forming a majority government. Instead, the election ended with Marois losing her own seat and the PQ capturing its lowest vote total since 1973, with just over 1-million votes (25% of the total) cast for the party. Now, there is an ominous feeling amongst Quebec’s workers and youth as memories of Jean Charest’s majority government come to the fore. Yes, the charter has been defeated, but austerity is still on the agenda — more firmly than ever before.
A superficial glance at the election results would suggest that the Liberals are riding a massive upswing in popularity, having captured its highest number of votes since 1994. However, this would be a complete misreading of the general mood in Quebec society today. The majority of Quebecers were not necessarily voting with the Liberals but rather voting against the PQ. As was mentioned in our pre-election article, the PQ had been propelled up in the polls largely due to its “Charter of Quebec Values”. This demagogic move had allowed the PQ to present themselves as the defenders of “common values”, and it had a certain degree of appeal for a sector of the Quebecois working class. But, there were limitations to this manoeuvre and the PQ’s appeal only held for so long.
What went wrong for the PQ?
No national movement can unite economic classes with diametrically opposed interests indefinitely. Over the past number of years, the nationalist movement in Quebec has been in crisis precisely for this reason — as the crisis bears down, governments are forced to follow the agenda of big business against the interests of the working class. Over the years, the PQ has increasingly become the most ardent defenders of capitalist austerity, precisely to prove to the Quebec ruling class that they are “fiscally responsible” defenders of the system. The PQ leadership has done its utmost to distance the party from the province’s trade unions, and accepted many prominent business people into the party’s ranks.
Last summer, the Parti Québécois government put forward the proposed “Charter of Quebec Values”, a policy that was supposed to enforce secular behaviour and dress on the public sector in Quebec but was really an attempt to attack immigrants and religious minorities. (Symbols such as the Christian cross in the National Assembly, and Christian prayer in municipal government meetings, were largely exempt from the crackdown.) The genuine motivation for the charter was to try to distract Quebec workers’ anger from all of the PQ’s broken promises from the 2012 election. Pauline Marois and the rest of the PQ were hoping that Quebec workers would not notice the government’s subservience to the economic program of the Quebec bosses, nor that the Marois government was essentially continuing the same policies as the reviled Charest government. For a few months, the plan worked as the PQ’s support in the polls climbed to heights not seen in years. As we wrote previously, most polls appeared to put the PQ within shooting distance of a majority government at the beginning of the campaign. However, the allure of the charter seemed to wear out very quickly during the election.
The key turning point of the campaign was Marois’ announcement that union buster Pierre Karl Péleadeau was going to be the PQ’s candidate in the riding of Saint-Jérôme. Almost immediately, the PQ’s standing in the polls began to drop. From the beginning to the end of the election campaign, the PQ’s support dropped by 15 percentage points. The nomination of Péladeau was met with almost universal condemnation from the labour unions in the province, who traditionally have tended to support the PQ. Taking an opportunity for the opening, Quebec solidaire highlighted that the party stood for the strengthening of anti-scab legislation to stop businessmen like Péladeau from locking out workers and using scabs in order to crush the unions.
As the PQ continued to bleed support and it increasingly looked like the Liberals would win the election, Marois tried to bring up the legacy of corruption from the previous Liberal government. However, hypocrisy stalked Marois and the PQ at every step. For example, Marois denounced the fact that Liberal leader Philippe Couillard had once had a bank account in the tax haven of Jersey Island, calling it “unacceptable”. QS then questioned Marois why Péladeau had over 60 of his companies registered in Delaware, another tax haven, including Vidéotron, Archambault, and Sun Media. Marois questioned Couillard over the fact that 18 former cabinet ministers in the corruption-tainted Charest government were running in the present election. Two days before the election, La Presse, citing leaked reports from the province’s anti-corruption squad, reported that there was a corrupt bidding scheme involving engineering firms who bid on contracts and then donated money to the PQ. While this scheme was occurring, both Pauline Marois and François Légault (the current leader of the CAQ) were ministers in the PQ government. All of Marois’ pleas, to “Trust me,” obviously rang hollow to most Quebecers’ ears.
Furthermore, the PQ’s attempts to portray themselves as the defenders of “the real values of the Quebecois” fell on deaf ears. Sebastien Dallaire from the Léger polling firm summed up the effect of the charter well when he said, “Even though they liked the idea, and majority of Quebecers were in favour of it, it [the charter] was not a priority.” As we have stated many times in the past, the national question is not the central issue on the minds of most Quebecers.
The Liberal campaign slogan, “Together, we take care of real business,” tapped into this sentiment among working-class Quebecers. Former Quebec premier and Liberal campaign consultant, Daniel Johnson, summed up Liberal leader Philippe Couillard's strategy by saying, "He had a plan to talk about jobs, the economy, health, and education. This is what people wanted to hear about, not other party lines or platforms." This bread-and-butter strategy is what ensured their victory as they spoke to the central issues on most Quebecers’ minds. During the debates, Liberal leader Philippe Couillard hammered Pauline Marois when she brought up the charter, jabbing at her with points such as, “How many jobs will you create?” or “How many nurses will you hire?” Liberal attack ads also highlighted the job losses suffered under the PQ government.
Of course, the Liberals cannot deliver on this populist rhetoric. Couillard will act no different than his PQ predecessor when carrying out the dictates of the market. He will act with the same underhanded ruthlessness as Jean Charest and Pauline Marois before him. Unfortunately there was no party which was able to effectively expose the hypocrisy of the Liberals in the eyes of the masses. Quebec solidaire did manage to win a third seat in the National Assembly, capturing the riding of Sainte-Marie–Saint-Jacques. But, the party was only able to increase their share of the vote by 1.5%, which has left many QS members scratching their heads. With the PQ being discredited and the wounds from the last Liberal government still fresh, the obvious question is why was QS unable to tap into this discontent? The opportunity for QS to undercut both parties from the left, and spearhead an anti-austerity movement, was more ripe than ever but something went wrong. This was even admitted by QS MNA Amir Khadir when he said, "Is our organization not structured well? Our efforts concentrated incorrectly? Was the communication of our program deficient? Was the problem the program in-and-of-itself? There is an examination to do." (Journal de Montréal, 8 Apr. 2014)
It must be said that the general strategy pursued by QS' leaders has not been successful. This idea that Quebecois workers will become disgusted with the right-wing policies of the PQ and inevitably move to the more left-wing sovereigntist option has not produced results. On the island of Montreal, the Liberals swept the majority of the seats by an even greater margin than the last election. The question that must be asked is why do the Liberals do so well in Montreal, the epicentre of the mass protests against the past Liberal governments? Workers in Montreal are also sick and tired of this federalist-sovereigntist debate. People in Montreal vote for the Liberals while holding their noses because they see no other alternative. QS appears as a left rump of the PQ, tail-ending the PQ through their discourse on the charter and their talk about sovereignty. QS' position on the charter was "we need a better charter" instead of "the charter is a smoke screen for austerity" as ASSÉ rightly called it. A socialist position on the charter is that it is impossible to bureaucratically impose "values" on any society. Any attempt to do so can only be reactionary and, in this context, it was a blatant distraction.
Unfortunately, QS is still seen as a fringe party, not credible or serious in the eyes of most working-class people. It did not help the party’s fortunes that the campaign messaging was sometimes vague and confusing, and hit-and-miss when speaking to the concrete needs of workers and youth. Instead of reflecting the burning anger that workers and youth have over broken promises and continued attacks on their living conditions, QS put forward slogans about “love” and “voting with your head”. On the other hand, the combative stance displayed by Couillard actually appealed to a lot of people who are looking for a way out of the crisis of capitalism. QS also continually got roped into the talk about independence, the prospects of a future referendum, and the PQ’s charter. As mentioned before, the burning issues for most workers and youth in the province are things such as jobs, health care, or social services. What could have won workers away from the PQ, the Liberals, and the CAQ were clear class politics that exposed the real agenda of these three capitalist parties, all of whom are looking to put the burden of the financial crisis on the shoulders of the working class. QS’ failure to clearly do this allowed the debate to become polarized with no one voting for what they wanted, but simply for the lesser evil.
Austerity is on the agenda — prepare to fight back!
Despite the fact that the Liberals won their highest number of votes in 20 years, this will be one of the most hated governments in Quebec's history. The experience of the Jean Charest government, which raised tuition fees and enacted anti-democratic legislation in order to crush the mass movement of 2012, is still fresh in the minds of many. The next four years will be years of attacks and social explosions in Quebec. But, will the labour movement be ready for this challenge? With the Liberals forming a majority government once again and disarray amongst the PQ, there exist great opportunities for Quebec solidaire to gain in support by representing the movement in Parliament. The labour unions will be on the chopping block and will be pushed into action. Inaction will not suffice.
The unions are the first line of defence against the austerity of the Liberal government. More than ever, the unions need to unite with Quebec solidaire to form a genuine party of the workers. For too long, workers in Quebec have been divided and forced to vote for parties that continually attack their living standards only for lack of a better option. Let us create that option; the labour movement and QS need to unite to create this alternative for all workers and youth genuinely wanting to beat back the attacks of this government and the agenda of the ruling class.