Rebuilding and not Rebranding: The Liberal Party in Quebec

“With respect to Quebec, there are two fundamental facts that Liberals must understand. 

First, since Wilfrid Laurier’s first majority win in 1896, the Liberal Party has not been able to win a majority against a united Conservative Party without the overwhelming support of Quebeckers… Second, Pierre Trudeau’s vision of federalism — a strong central government with ten subservient provinces and no recognition of the distinctness of any of them — is a thing of the past.”

  • How the federal Liberals can rise again in Quebec, by Zach Paikin, Posted on May 18, 2012, 4:36 am

One would have to be foolish to not recognize the need for the Liberal Party to be competitive in Quebec. However, Zach Paikin’s piece in iPolitics underlines the very problems that our Party is having.

Mr. Paikin argues that Quebec can be won in three steps. If our Party simultaneously defends federalism, embraces Quebec nationalism and acts in a socially progressive manner, our Party will once again become “the force” in Quebec Politics.

There are, however, two problems with this theory: Firstly, no Party in Canadian History has been able to defend federalism; while, at the same time, embracing the narrowness of regional attitudes. Bourassa after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, for example, did flirt with the idea of holding a referendum on sovereignty association. However, he came back into the fold by the time the Charlottetown Accord was put to a vote.

The second problem with Mr. Paikin’s piece is his failure to understand that the weakness of the Liberal Party is the lack of institutional strength. Or put differently, the Party does not have the institutional capacity to compete in much of the country. I know this because I have seen it here in Calgary. In many places in the country, the Liberal Party has atrophied and the result is that we are not electing MPs in Quebec. So from this point of view, the issue is not one of policy change or rebranding, but one of rebuilding the party in Quebec.

However, before we deal with institutional weakness, let us look at the policy conundrum posed by our friend, Zach Paikin. In 1987, Brian Mulroney tried a very similar strategy. He argued that Quebec’s aspirations for more power could be held within a larger federation. Or put different, Mr. Mulroney sat on both sides of the federal fence. His solution was the Meech Lake Accord: an attempt to provide some recognition of Quebec’s difference and powers to match. Appointments to the Supreme Court would be guaranteed and a constitutional veto would be provided to Quebec and all other provinces. Simply, put that deal was rejected.  From the point of view of many Quebecois, there was not enough there. The deal was not rich enough. While, for the rest of Canada, the federation would have be weakened beyond recognition. This disagreement led to years of the Bloc Quebecois, the failed Charlottetown Accord, debates on Independence, the Referendum of 1995 and the Clarity Act.

Given that this is a recurring issue, regional tensions must be accepted as a cost of living in a federation. For, Canadian Constitutional history shows us that regional aspirations and friction has always occurred. Therefore, it is a natural part of Canadian Constitutional History. Think about it. In 1864, George Brown dreamed about a greater union of British North American Colonies. Part of the reason for that dream can be found in the tension in the Legislature of the Province of Canada. This strain was a result of regional tensions created by the Union of Canada East (what we now know as Quebec) and Canada West (what became Ontario) in 1840. While, after 1866, colonial and provincial interests led to the election of the first anti-confederation governments in Canadian History. To the surprise of many today, the provinces that wanted out of Confederation were New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

This Confederation has always strained the loyalty, judgment and insight of all involved. So the tensions created by the Canadian federation are natural. Therefore, we – as a country – do not need to simultaneously “embrace Quebec nationalism and be a staunch defender of federalism”.

Over time, the only thing that has worked to resolve regional tension has been the development of Provincial and Federal political parties. After 1867, The Tories and the Grits together formed national coalitions which spoke to the aspirations of a Young Nation. Through those parties, Canada was eventually stitched together. From time to time, ever since, new parties have emerged to “re-stitch” or add new stitches to our political conversation. The United Farmers Movement did so in the early 20th century; while CCF and Social Credit Movement did so in the 1930’s. From, there the NDP can be traced. In the 1980’s and 90’s, more movements came. They included the Western Independence Movement and Reform Party.  Since 1867, political parties have been on the ground, creating coalitions and giving voice to a larger Canadian Narrative.

That same tradition can be found in Quebec. The Union Nationale did not come out of the “vapour” or a “vacuum”. It was a merger between the Conservative Party of Quebec and dissident members of the Quebec Liberal Party. For those who do not know, the Union Nationale was most successful under its first leader, Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis. He governed Quebec from 1936 to 1939 and 1944 to 1959. At that time, Quebec was a closed and conservative society which was government with an iron first.

Out of this situation, the Quiet Revolution was born.  Men like Trudeau and Lévesque argued in journals like Cité Libre about the future of Quebec. Out of those conversations, the Quebecois decided that they would have two separate visions of Quebec: Sovereigntist and Federalist. It is those conversations which drove Quebec Politics from the 1960s’ to today.

So if you see my logic, one can see why the Orange Crush happened in Quebec. The NDP won seats because they developed a ground game, party structure and dedicated members. Or put differently, the Sherbrook Resolution or other policy tools did not win ridings in Quebec, people did.

My words bare some truth because we know that the Federal Liberals and the Federal Conservatives have not really had an effective ground game in Quebec for years. Both Parties have poached candidates from Provincial Parties or aligned themselves with different provincial interests. Mulroney aligned himself with Quebec Nationalist, as an example, to side step the hard work of building a party in Quebec. The same game plan was used by the Federal Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois.

However, that expediency brought with it problems. Since the Sponsorship Scandal, it has become clear that all parties in Quebec have problems with their fundraising structures. All save one: the NDP. While the, NDP’s policy on Quebec is totally unworkable, they have taken the time to build a party structure in the province. Therefore, the Quebecois have ignored the huge problems with the NDP’s policy.

Just take a quick look at the NDP’s policy on Quebec and one can see its problems. In their Sherbrook declaration, the NDP states that “Quebeckers sense of belonging to Canada is different from that of the Canadian Majority. That sense of belonging and identity, is not however, incompatible with flexible, cooperative federalism”.  Throughout the Sherbrook declaration, the NDP argues that by offering a unique deal to Quebec, Canada will be safe. Or in their words, “Unity is not necessarily uniformity”. In their world, Quebec can be a different type of Province. If one looks at the logic of the position, one can see that it is very similar to Mr. Mulroney’s. So such a deal would generate the same type of problems created by the Meech Lake Accord and we know how that ended up.

With that being said, the NDP has a ground game. Having people on the ground brings legitimacy and reminds one of the connection that the party has to the community. Or put differently, the NDP has been able to stitch together a coalition: a coalition that non-legitimate parties could not put together. Therefore, when the Liberals got into trouble with governance, the NDP put their ground game into action. While the BQ lost their purpose or when the Conservatives true colours came to the fore, the NDP was able to gain ground. It is very easy to argue that the lack of a strong party infrastructure has gotten us into trouble in many provinces. So why would Quebec be different?

It’s funny that we perceived that the Quebecois were not open to change.  Quebeckers voted for the ADQ in 1994 and Federal Conservatives in 2006. Most recently, the right of centre party known as the Coalition Avenir Québec has been taking support from all parties. So change is possible in Quebec. Given that right of centre Parties have not had strong roots, they have not had any longevity or stamina. So one could argued that ideology has very little to do with the changes in Quebec.

Further to my point, just look at the political diversity in Quebec. Quebec and BC are the only two provinces that are represented by four political parties. Quebec has the Bloc Quebecois, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the NDP; while, the Conservatives, Liberals, NDP and Green Party represent BC’s interests. Surely, one cannot say that this political diversity is without merit. Nor can one say that Quebec is not a fertile ground for debate. However, it does become clear that without a ground game, Quebec would be lost to any party,

Therefore, we need people in Quebec to argue for the Liberal Party. It is good for us that we have a  solid stage form which to make that argument from. For, our record in the province has not been bad. The Liberal Party has strived to strengthen the French Language across the country. To this point, unlike the Conservatives, the Liberal Party still supports bilingualism and argued against the appointment of a unilingual Auditor General. By being strong advocates of the internationally Francophonie, we have ensured that the French Language is a viable part of Canadian Culture. Or put differently, French Canadians want to and need to retain their language because of the need to us the language overseas. In fact, due to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Manitoba Franco-phones were finally able to hold the Government of Manitoba to account.

Furthermore, in line with Quebec’s wishes, since 1993, Liberal Governments have consistently withdrawn federal money from areas of provincial jurisdiction. It was the Chretien Government that reduced federal involvement in provincial affairs through the creation of the Canada Social Transfer. The Block Grant Transfer had fewer rules than the previous system. While, the Provinces received fewer dollars, they could also spend money in any way they wished. This withdrawal of federal government involvement was only the start.

Over the last number of years, the provincial governments have increased their roles in foreign relations, immigration and federal taxation through the HST. Quebec has been a large benefactor in this change of power. In fact, the Clarity Act plus other administrative changes means that Quebec has a large amount of control over its destiny. This is one reason I believe that sovereignty has diminished as a threat.

In fact, one can see that effect of the withdrawl of Federal Money has been significant. If one looks at Quebec’s books, one can see that the reduction of Federal Money has taken its toll.  Based on data provided by the Quebec Department of Finance in its 2012-2013 Budget Plan, the Montreal Economic Institute estimates that the debt of the Quebec Government will increase “by: $10.2 billion per year, the equivalent of $28 million per day, $19,331 per minute, or $322 per second.”

So realistically the Liberal Party has stood up for Quebec’s interests. We just need someone there to argue that. Therefore, we do not need to change policy, we need to create structure. We need members and not just supporters. We need a voice and not just talk in “la belle Province.”

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