Mulcair loses chance to solidify NDP gains in Québec

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What were Québec’s voters looking for in its provincial election?Quebec Flag IconpngCanada Flag Icon

Obviously not the hard-core separatist agenda that premier Pauline Marois did such a poor job of concealing from voters. As soon as a potential referendum on independence became the central issue of the election, Marois’s Parti québécois (PQ) immediately lost its polling lead.

Obviously not the market-friendly approach to government that François Legault champions. He’s now failed twice to convince Québec’s voters to elect the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ) into government.

Despite its massive win in today’s election, it’s not obvious that the Québec electorate was so incredibly excited about returning the Parti libéral du Québec (Liberal Party, or PLQ) to power just 18 months in opposition. The Charbonneau Commission, appointed during the previous Liberal government of premier Jean Charest, hasn’t even finished its inquiry into allegations of corruption related to the awarding of (mostly Liberal) government contracts.

Imagine, instead, if Québec voters had a fourth option — a party with the social democratic credibility that the CAQ lacks but without the PQ’s separatist agenda and without the baggage of last decade’s Liberal governments?

That’s right — a province-level  party of the New Democratic Party, or the Nouveau Parti démocratique du Québec (NPDQ).

Québec’s 2014 provincial elections would have been the perfect platform for NDP leader Thomas Mulcair to build a truly competitive provincial vehicle within Québec, and it’s a goal that Mulcair outlined after he won the NDP leadership in 2012 and again late last year:

“There is no federal party on the left in Quebec,” Mr. Mulcair told the National Post after his party’s weekly caucus meeting. “We want to make sure that Quebec also has the NDP as part of its political [scene.]“

Mr. Mulcair originally floated the idea of re-constituting the NDP’s Quebec wing in the summer of 2012, ahead of the province’s September vote. But the idea was put into deep storage as the Parti Québécois won a minority mandate, and the increasingly fractious political scene frustrated long-term planning.

But plans were back on as of last week, when the former Quebec lieutenant for the party, Pierre Ducasse, submitted membership lists to Quebec’s election body, the Directeur général des élections du Québec. (DGEQ)

In the 2011 federal election, under the leadership of the late Jack Layton, the NDP achieved a historic victory, largely on the strength of its popularity in Québec. The NDP won 59 out of 75 ridings in the province three years ago, with the strength of 42.9% of the vote in a four-way contest, far outpacing the Bloc québécois (BQ), the regionalist party that held an electoral lock on Québec in five of the six previous federal elections.

What’s more, Mulcair grew up in Québec with a French-Canadian mother and a strong pedigree in Québécois politics — his great-great-grandfather was former premier Honoré Mercier. Mulcair’s legal practice and political career unfolded in Québec, and he served in Québec’s provincial assembly for over a decade and as a minister of environment and sustainable development during the 2000s under Charest before making the jump to federal politics.

Even as Marois began to eye snap elections, Mulcair never expedited a provincial NDP — the Québec-level party only registered as a party in January.

That’s a decision Mulcair might come to regret. Had he prioritized a Québec-level NDP, he could have been standing at a victory party for Québec’s first New Democratic premier tonight. Instead, Mulcair was resigned to voting for the Liberals in Québec, limited to pointing out that he was the only federal leader eligible to vote in the provincial election (Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who represents the Papineau riding from Québec, lives in Ottawa).

With Trudeau’s Liberals leading national polls in advance of the 2015 national elections, the NDP could easily lose many of the seats that it won in 2011. With a majority Liberal government now elected for what might be the next five years, the NDP’s ‘orange crush’ could be long finished by the next time that Québec’s voters go to the polls.

It’s not the first time that there’s been a NPDQ at the provincial level. The most recent attempt in the 1980s led to the NPDQ’s disaffiliation from the federal NDP over the increasingly bitter issue of separatism, with the NPDQ taking an increasingly sovereigntist position. The final blow came in 1990, when the NPDQ endorsed Gille Duceppe, the separatist Bloc candidate instead of the federal NDP candidate.

In the same year, the federal party sued the NPDQ to stop it from using the name ‘New Democratic’ after the provincial party selected Paul Rose, who was convicted for murder for his role in the 1970 October crisis, as its candidate in a provincial by-election. In the 1990s the NPDQ changed its name twice and ultimately merged into what is today’s leftist, sovereigntist Québec solidaire.

Unlike in the United States, Canadian national parties often have some distance from provincial parties. The Ontario Liberal Party, for example, has no formal ties to the Liberal Party of Canada —  Trudeau certainly doesn’t give marching orders to Ontario’s Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

Bob Rae, who once served as Ontario’s first (and only) New Democratic premier between 1990, and 1995, ultimately became a top Liberal official – and, briefly, interim federal Liberal leader — when he jumped into federal politics over a decade later.

In Québec, though Trudeau endorsed Couillard the PLQ, the national Liberals have even more distance from the PLQ historically. 

In part, that’s because Charest once led the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, essentially one of the precursors of the Conservative Party of prime minister Stephen Harper. So when Charest led the PLQ between 1998 and 2012, it had arguably closer ties with the Tories at the federal level than with the Grits. 

All of which demonstrates that the relationships between federal and provincial politics are complex. But there’s otherwise nothing that would have stopped Mulcair from building the NDP franchise in Québec in 2014. By the time the NDP has another chance, the window to do so may have closed.

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