BY MICHAEL TAUBE - Oh, no! The big, bad, scary, evil, terrifying beast known as the Bloc Québécois is rising in the polls! Lock your doors, hide your children, and live in constant fear that Canada is going to … well, may (yes, may!) separate at any given moment!
OK, that was a bit over the top. But I honestly think that’s the way some people kind of initially react when they start seeing the BQ’s popularity numbers increase. Allow me to try to soothe your shattered nerves.
This week’s Leger Marketing poll indeed showed the BQ was the most popular party in Quebec with 31 per cent of Quebecers in a poll of voting intentions. The NDP were second at 27 per cent, followed by the Liberals at 22 per cent. There you have it.
What does it mean in the grand scheme of things? Not as much as you think.
The BQ’s gains were likely caused by Quebecers’ disgruntlement with the federal government. As Leger Marketing’s poll shows, the Tories have dropped to 14 per cent in la belle province. That’s unfortunate, but hardly the end of the world. There’s long been a historical pattern of right-leaning political parties having fluctuations in popular support between federal elections. Fiscal and social conservative policies don’t go over very well in a province that tends to support left-leaning policies and more state interference. That’s why few Tory leaders have been able to achieve electoral success in Quebec, save for John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney, and to some extent, Stephen Harper.
It’s also important to keep in mind the Liberals, and not the Tories, were for many decades the federal alternative to the BQ. That’s not the case any longer. Liberal interim leader Bob Rae has been able to steady the ship in Quebec, but they are still far behind not only in terms of popular support, but also potential electoral support. While this doesn’t mean they won’t recover in due course, it’s still a tough slog ahead.
In the 2011 election, the NDP became the federal alternative in Quebec. Under Jack Layton’s leadership, they won an astonishing 59 seats last May. (They’ve since lost one MP, Lise St-Denis, to the Liberals.) While the party’s interim leader, Nycole Turmel, had some rocky moments due to her previous history with the BQ, she was able to maintain their heads above water. All things considered, that’s probably the best the NDP could have asked for.
Here comes the interesting part of this political equation: While the NDP had never broken through in Quebec until last year, it’s actually puzzling that it took as long as it did. New Democrats support many of the same political and economic values that the Bloquistes do. Hence, the NDP is English Canada’s social democratic party, and the BQ is French Canada’s social democratic party.
They sound like two peas in a political pod, except for the BQ’s position on separatism. But even that’s not a tangible issue. As I wrote in the Citizen last August, “Many Quebecers have freely shifted their votes from the BQ to NDP because of the two parties’ similar social democratic values and like-minded policy proposals. Not too long ago, the BQ was the only viable alternative for Quebec leftists who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Liberal.” Socialism, and not separatism, guides left-wing Quebec voters.
Of interest, the Leger Marketing poll showed that 48 per cent of respondents opposed Quebec independence, while 45 per cent were in favour. It shows Quebecers remain heavily divided on this issue. Meanwhile, the poll also showed that more than half of the respondents don’t believe Quebec will ever separate from Canada.
Yes, the BQ supports separatism. I think we’re all pretty clear on that. But as a viable political and economic strategy, separatism has been waning for decades. The BQ realizes this fact, and has therefore attempted to sway left-wing Quebecers (and there are many of them) with nanny-state dreams and motherhood promises. Until the NDP broke through in 2011, this strategy worked rather well.
Which brings me to my last point. If we’re going to properly analyse the BQ’s recent surge in popularity, it can only be done when the NDP chooses a new leader on March 24. The Tories and Liberals will continue to flail in the muddy Quebec political waters for a few more years. Right now, the key is whether or not the new NDP leader is well-received in Quebec — and if he or she can regain some or all of the lost support that Layton built up. In my view, this result will cause the BQ, and only the BQ, to shoot up or down the polls.
What if the BQ continues to lead after the NDP leadership race? I still wouldn’t worry about it. The next federal election isn’t until 2015, after all. But feel free to keep chewing your nails and counting your pennies.
Michael Taube, a political analyst and commentator, and former speech writer for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, appears every other Saturday.