Quebec election 2012: Hoping for a minority
Sep 1, 2012

Quebec election 2012: Hoping for a minority

In a parliamentary system, we usually hope for a majority for our preferred party because this gives them the power to implement their policies. However, there are several situations where a minority government is actually preferred such as I argued ought to be the case for the 2011 Ontario election for people loosely on the left. In the imminent Quebec election, I must argue the same and hope that the Parti Québécois, currently just edging into majority territory in polls, only gets a minority.

The problem in Quebec is the prevalence of a strong identity politics which, like other first world countries with strong identity politics, distorts the political spectrum. Conventionally, one has a range of parties on the left and a range of parties on the right, who disagree on standard issues such as the the appropriate role of taxation and spending in government. This 'works', such as it does, by creating a good counterbalance and if one party goes too egregiously from the average view of the population they are tossed out in the next election. But it keeps the central political conflict - the role of government - in line with a legitimate conflict that needs to be addressed in society.

When there is a party with its central identifier being some form of religious, ethnic or cultural identity, their dominance has more to do with how strongly people identify with this group and less about actual issues in their platform. People don't support the party because they think that it is offering policies they support on issues they care about, but because that party is their party as it shares their identity. Take the Lou vote in Kenya as an extreme example. Too many parties like this and the ability for reasonable policy debate plays second fiddle to the simultaneously vacuous and pernicious idea of shared identity.

In Quebec, the Parti Québécois is defined, first and foremost, by an identity politics. This is to say that it is more than just a single issue party where people support the party if they support the idea of Quebec nationalism. People support this party if they feel that they are very Québécois, if they feel that this identity is important to them, and wants a party that simply shares this identity. Everything other political issues falls into the background, and a platform gets to be little more than a sampling of feel good policy promises.

PQ leader Pauline Marois has been relatively shameless during the campaign in pushing identity issues. There was the issue of requiring candidates for local office to speak French while completely ignoring northern First Nations communities. After a flare up of controversy, this was retracted to only apply to people immigrating to Quebec. Such an incredibly poorly thought policy that, initially at least, has the only consequence of hurting a minority (since in French dominated parts, obvious realpolitik is that candidates have to speak French) gets support because people think that French is important to them and want to hear a party agreeing with them that it is, even if it is vacuous in effect.

Then there was the issue, borrowed from a disturbing trend in the European nationalist right, of banning religious symbols like the hijab that is nothing short of discriminatory against those who identity differently from the francophone, secular Québécois culture. Notably excluded from this ban is the wearing of crucifixes. Even without the crucifix exemption, this is the kind of militant secularism - and recall that I am a firm atheist who condemns many consequences of religion - which does vastly more harm than good. Add in the exemption and this is blatant discrimination against Muslims and is representative of the perniciousness of Islamophobia that allows simply blasting Muslims to be a technique to win an election with the only people who suffer being Muslims.

So why do I hope for a minority given the above context? The reason is that this election has not seen a substantive debate about the big problems in Quebec governance (of which whether they are Québécois enough is simply not one of them). With the exception of the Liberals, a PQ or CAQ victory is hardly a convincing mandate for a particular set of policy initiatives. Thus that debate still needs to happen, and it best occurs in a minority situation. The three parties (perhaps Quebec Solidaire even picks up a couple, in some scenarios making enough to be the swing vote for the PQ) then can spend the next few years having more substantive debates on what to do with, say, Quebec debt levels outside of the context of an election determined more by identity than by issues. Until we dispense with identity politics altogether, situations like this are going to keep coming up. 

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