No-name party's popularity says plenty about Quebec politics

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The Gazette, Monday, October 18, 2010

A party that doesn't exist, the New Party, would win 30 per cent of the votes in a Quebec election, leaving the Parti Quebecois behind at 27 per cent, with the Liberals at 25 per cent and Action democratique du Quebec at seven per cent.

This is not going to be the ballot at the next election, but it was the choice offered last week by Leger Marketing in a poll for the Quebecor newspapers and TV networks, and it was the talk of the political class.

It's only a hypothetical choice, but it does indicate there's a void in Quebec politics, and politics famously abhors a vacuum.

Francois Legault might be prepared to step in and fill it. The former PQ minister and co-founder of Air Transat has a 54-per-cent approval rating, while PQ and Liberal leaders Pauline Marois and Jean Charest are somewhere in the 20s.

So, the no-name party, with no leader, no platform, and no founding convention in sight, is the most popular party in Quebec.

Which tells you everything you need to know about the standing of the leading two brands, the PQ and Liberals, that will be on the ballot.

By the way, the last election was held in December 2008, so the next one doesn't have to be held before the fall of 2013.

Among Charest's favourite quotations is one from his political mentor, Brian Mulroney: "Don't compare me to perfection, only to the alternative."

And the alternative, Marois, is almost as unpopular as Charest. And then there's the alternative's political offering, sovereignty, which is always on the ballot, even when it isn't. Elect the PQ and sooner or later you'll get another referendum, the last thing Quebecers want. They much prefer voting for the Bloc Quebecois in federal elections in the certain knowledge they can vote for a sovereignist party without voting for sovereignty.

Well, the New Party would be a nationalist but not separatist formation, not unlike the ADQ in its brief heyday under Mario Dumont, when it actually formed the official opposition in the 2007 legislature, but never positioned itself as a government in waiting. The ADQ was also a down-river party, with its support concentrated in Quebec City and east. It has never won a seat in the Montreal area, where half the voters live.

The New Party would be the party of the Plateau and Outremont, both trendy and bourgeois. Don't ask whether Legault, or whoever, would have the political courage to raise daycare or university tuition fees, or reduce the 50 per cent public funding for private high schools.

We'll have to wait until they have a name, a leader, and even a policy convention.

Meantime, Charest has two years in which he can prepare an exit strategy for himself, which at this point seems more likely than him winning a fourth consecutive election.

By April 2013, Charest will have been in office for 10 consecutive years, and that would be a good moment for him to leave. It would also leave plenty of time for the Liberals to organize a competitive leadership race. Meantime, don't expect Charest to declare himself a lame duck. Nor will his caucus try to push him out. That's another thing Charest learned from Mulroney: Keep the caucus close.

Robert Bourassa used to say that a week is a long time in politics and a year is an eternity. Well, Charest has at least two years before he must make a decision on his future. But he needs to get the party's standing, and his own, in better shape.

And that begins with changing the conversation, from ethics to the economy, where the Liberals have a very good story to tell. The campaign-finance reform, introduced by the new justice minister, Jean-Marc Fournier, is a very good beginning.

By making cheques payable to the director general of elections, rather than parties, bagmen will lose much of their influence. The disclosure of all donations, including those under $200, is welcome in terms of transparency. As for the Bastarache Commission on judicial appointments, it will find that either Charest or Marc Bellemare, is telling the truth, and the smart money is on the premier.

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