What effect will the Québec election have on Canadian federal politics?

With all eyes on Québec’s election next Tuesday, federal Canadian politics has somewhat been on the backburner for the past month.

But what are the consequences of the election in Canada’s second most-populous province for federal Canadian politics?

By and large, federal politics is highly segregated from provincial politics.  While there’s some overlap, provincial parties do not necessarily line up with national parties (for example, in Alberta, both the Progressive Conservative Party and the Wildrose Party are considered ‘conservative’ by federal standards and both parties attracted support from the federal Conservative Party in Alberta’s provincial election in April 2012).  That’s especially true in francophone Québec — the province has greater autonomy than most provinces, historically leans more leftist than the rest of Canada, and features its own separate federalist / sovereigntist political axis that is unique to Québec.

Nonetheless, a possible win by either of the three major parties — a fourth-consecutive term for premier Jean Charest and his Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ), Pauline Marois and the sovereigntist Parti québécois (PQ) or former PQ minister François Legault’s newly-formed Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ). — could affect federal Canadian politics in subtle ways.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party

There’s little downside for the federal Conservatives in any case, especially considering that Harper hasn’t devoted time or effort to backing anyone in the Québec race.

Charest, of course, once served as the leader of the federal Progressive Conservative Party in the 1990s before moving to provincial politics — the Progressive Conservatives ultimately merged with Harper’s Western-based Canadian Alliance in 2003 to become the Conservative Party.  Although Charest has been a staunch federalist in nearly a decade of leading Québec’s government, he hasn’t always had the best relationship with Harper (pictured above, left, with Charest).  That’s partly due to the tension between a provincial premier and a federal prime minister, but Harper, in particular, is still thought to feel somewhat burned after intervening on behalf of Charest in the final days of the 2007 Québec election.

Harper provided $2 million in additional federal transfers to Québec that may well have helped premier Jean Charest narrowly win that election — Charest proceeded to use the funds to pass $700 million in tax cuts instead of for extra services, causing Harper problems with his allies in other provinces.  

If Charest holds on for a fourth consecutive mandate, Harper will nonetheless benefit in having the sovereignty issue buried until at least the next provincial election, and likely through the next federal election.  If Marois and the PQ win, however, Charest may face the unwanted headache of a new referendum on Québec independence.  Even then, the inevitable calls of a PQ-led provincial government for more autonomy could allow the federal government to transfer troublesome budget headaches like employment insurance to Québec, forcing Marois to make hard decisions about budget cuts instead of Harper.

If the CAQ wins, Harper could conceivably argue — as he could have in 2007 when the Action démocratique de Québec nearly won — that there is some demand in Québec for a center-right, pro-market political movement.

The Conservatives won just five seats in the 2011 general election, down from the 10 seats it won in both 2006 and 2008.  Harper’s government remains fairly unpopular in the province, and Harper has repeatedly been a target for Marois in the current race.

That animosity’s not always been the case.  Harper’s Conservatives and the federal Bloc québécois often allied in opposition together in the early 2000s against Liberal prime minister Paul Martin.  Lucien Bouchard served as a minister in Brian Mulroney’s federal cabinet before forming the Bloc québécois in 1990, and later, returning to Québéc to lead the “Yes” campaign in the 1995 referendum and serve as premier from 1996 to 2001.

Believe it or not, there is a province-level conservative party in Québec: the Parti conservateur du Québecwhich is fielding candidates in just 27 of the 125 provincial election districts.  The party, formed in 2009, is the first conservative party in Québec since the 1935 provincial election, when Martin Duplessis merged it with another party to form the Union nationale (which governed Québec until 1960).

The current leader, Luc Harvey, was a federal Conservative MP from 2006 to 2008, and among the PCQ’s top supporters is Richard Decarie, a former deputy chief of staff to Harper.  Nonetheless, the party is not formally affiliated with Harper’s federal Conservatives, which is probably a good thing for Harpet, considering the ridiculously low level of support Harvey’s party commands.

Thomas Mulcair and the New Democratic Party

It’s been just over a year since the death of Mulcair’s predecessor, Jack Layton, whose popularity in Québec led to a late-breaking groundswell of success in the 2011 general election — the NDP, which had previously not been a key player in either federal or provincial Québécois politics, found itself having won a landslide 59 out of 75 ridings in Québec.

Mulcair, who only assumed leadership of the NDP in March of this year, announced a week ago that the NDP would compete in future provincial elections as the Nouveau parti democratique du Quebec, but Mulcair hasn’t taken any side in the current election:

“I’m going to be called upon to work with whatever party forms the government,” he said.

“So you won’t hear me as the leader of the official Opposition in Ottawa getting involved in the provincial campaign right now.”

In any event, there’s little downside for the NDP as well — as a federalist, socially democratic party, it will share principles in common with both Charest’s federalist Liberals and with Marois’s leftist PQ.  If the CAQ performs well, the NDP can point to that success as an indication that Quebeckers are still looking for fresh alternatives at the provincial level as well as the federal level, and the coalition of voters that propelled the NDP to such success in 2011 has remained intact.

The Bloc Québécois

As the federal arm of the PQ, a PQ victory would obviously be the best result for the Bloc, which was reduced to just four seats in the last federal election after holding the majority of Québec’s ridings — between 44 and 54 seats — in every federal election since 1993.

The Bloc’s shellacking in the 2011 federal election has prevented the Bloc from playing any significant role in the current provincial election, with former Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe out of the House of Commons and on the sidelines of Québécois politics.  The once-ubiquitous Duceppe has been mostly invisible in the 2012 provincial campaign, save from a nasty swipe at Amir Khadir, spokesman for the leftist and sovereigntist Québec solidaire, earlier in August.

Some former Bloc MPs are running for the PQ, including Robert Carrier, Thierry St-Cyr and, most notably, Serge Cardin, who is challenging Charest in his district of Sherbrooke.  Former Bloc MP Mario Laframboise, however, is a candidate for the CAQ in 2012.

Nonetheless, a PQ win would bolster hopes that the Bloc could return as a force in federal politics at the next general election — but as of July 2012, the NDP still leads the Bloc for federal voting intentions in Québec by a margin of 39% to 20%.

Bob Rae, Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party

Charest’s PLQ and the federal Liberal Party have absolutely no formal association, especially given Charest’s one-time time to the federal Conservatives.

But there’s no real upside for the federal Grits, who remain unpopular and mired in an identity crisis in advance of a 2013 leadership race.  If Charest’s PLQ returns to office, notwithstanding its unpopularity and charges of corruption, it will be a reminder of the sponsorship scandals that torpedoed the federal Liberal Party’s popularity under Martin.  With the NDP still incredibly popular, the Liberals would be hard-pressed to retain the seven ridings they won in Québec in 2011.

The leading potential contender for the Liberal leadership, Justin Trudeau (son of the former prime minister Pierre Trudeau) has expressed his support for PLQ candidate Gerry Sklavounos, who is running for reelection in the electoral district of Laurier-Dorion in Montreál, which is located in Trudeau’s federal riding.

Otherwise, federal Grit participation in the Québec election has been as subdued as federal Tory participation.

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