Weather, apathy and Harper ate away at Charest's majority

[e-mail this page to a friend]

by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, December 10, 2008

So, what happened to Jean Charest's big majority, which became what's known as a short majority when the votes were counted in the Quebec election? Two things: turnout and blowback.

First, the lowest turnout ever in a Quebec election, 57 per cent, down from 71 per cent in 2007. Low turnout normally favours the Liberals as their demographic usually comes out to vote. It's the Parti Quebecois that's usually over-polled by two or three points.

This time the Liberals and PQ traded places. The Liberals, at 42 per cent, were three points below their score in the final Léger Marketing poll last Saturday. The PQ, at 35 per cent, was three points above their number in the last Léger poll, completed last Friday.

Well, seven points is not 13. It's the difference between a 2003 repeat of 76 Liberal seats, to the 66 they received, only three more than a bare majority in the 125-seat National Assembly. It's a mathematical rule of the game that, because of their surplus votes in non-francophone ridings, the Liberals need to cover a seven- or eight-point spread to win a majority. And that's exactly how it came out. In those terms, the Liberal vote proved quite efficient. West Island voters, who stayed home in droves, would have bumped the Liberals' popular-vote share by a couple of points, but that wouldn't have given Charest any more seats.

What accounts for the dismal turnout, the lowest ever? The weather was definitely a factor - it was bitterly cold - and with a Liberal majority a lock in the polls, their voters were not motivated. So, overconfidence was also a factor, as was voter apathy, not to mention voters who stayed away because they were angry the election was called in the first place. Yet 71 per cent of Quebecers told pollsters they intended to vote on Monday, but only 57 per cent of them did. That's outside the usual margin of liars. But then, the premise of the question was flawed. Why would people admit they didn't intend to vote? You might as well ask them if they're prejudiced. Qui? Moi?

As for the blowback, none of the Quebec polls at the weekend measured any impact from Stephen Harper's frontal assault on "the separatist coalition," which mobilized public opinion in English Canada against last week's attempted coup in Ottawa, but was instantly interpreted in Quebec not as separatist bashing (basically like hitting a piñata), but Quebec bashing.

Of course, the separatists are sensitive to being called separatists, which is why they've been calling themselves sovereignists for decades. And Harper, equally, called them sovereignists, but only in the French version of his speech.

This wasn't about delicate sensibilities in the sovereignty movement, but about their gaining an edge in the final weekend of the provincial campaign. The worst fears of the Quebec Liberals - of some kind of Quebec-flag burning incident at anti-coalition rallies in English Canada last weekend - never materialized. And a good thing, too. In today's YouTube world, the images would have gone viral in a heartbeat.

But Gilles Duceppe and Pauline Marois did gain a rhetorical advantage, targeting Harper's verbal assaults against the separatist coalition in the House, and particularly in the English version of his address to the nation last Wednesday.

Duceppe torqued up his response, calling it the worst attack on Quebec since the death of Meech Lake, an event that led to the founding of the Bloc.

Those are loaded words. Attacks on Quebec mean attacks on Quebec values. It was one thing for Pierre Trudeau to attack the separatists, in fact he made a pretty good living out of it. But at least he was a favourite son, one of our own, or as a Quebec City cab driver once put it: "he's an SOB but he's our SOB." Stephen Harper, for all his efforts in Quebec, has no such standing with Quebecers.

In the course of the federal campaign, and now in his intemperate response to last week's attempted coup, Harper has squandered much of the political capital he has painstakingly built with Quebecers, from his open-federalism speech to the Québécois-nation resolution. First, there were the cultural cuts and hard-time proposals for young offenders in the campaign, and now this.

None of the Quebec polls captured this effect going into the weekend, and only one, Angus Reid, picked up on it over the weekend, projecting a bang-on final score of 42-36 per cent.

Even if it was only a couple of points moving away from the Liberals, and a couple more moving to the PQ, that was enough to play a role in transforming a big majority into a small one. And even if that's not so, it's already perceived wisdom in the political class.

The result of the low turnout and blowback means not only a very competitive Assembly for Charest to manage, but a revival of the PQ from a demoralized third party to an opposition claiming a moral victory.

There were more mentions of sovereignty in Marois's speech on Monday than there were in the entire campaign. For Charest, a robust PQ opposition guarding the nationalist flank means he'll have to strike a more aggressive posture with Ottawa in his role as the defender of Quebec's interests in Canada.

 
  © Copyright 2006-2012 L. Ian MacDonald. All Rights Reserved. Site managed by Jeremy Leonard