The Quebec election is being fought over the wrong issues
Mar 30, 2014

The Quebec election is being fought over the wrong issues

Quebec has numerous very legitimate issues in governance and economics that can, and should, be addressed in an election. In many ways, the Quebec model provides for Canada an example of a significantly more interventionist, egalitarian government - something I might advocate for on this blog - but poor management and misguided priorities have led to large challenges in the model, not the least of which is the highest debt per person of a province in Canada. Getting a mandate for a path forward is an important step.

However, the Quebec election will largely be fought, and won, over two other issues.

Firstly, the perennial issue of separatism. PQ leader Pauline Marois was pushed hard by rivals recently in the campaign about stating precisely whether there would be a referendum on separatism if she won a majority mandate. Trying to simultaneously appeal to her base while not alienating the majority that doesn't want a referendum, she refused to make the answer clear, instead giving a vague "when the people are ready" response.

Rightly or wrongly, leaving Canada would have tremendous impact and voters are correct not to set the issue aside if it does remain at all on the table. However, as long as it remains on the table - as long as one of the Parti Québécois remains at its core a separatist party -  it means that elections are mini referendums on that issue, and not all the other issues of governance that could be fought over. It so to consequential an issue for it to be anything else, as much as Marois may wish she could make the election about something else while still retaining her base.

Secondly, there is the Quebec Charter of Values. Tactically, proposing and running on this bill was an excellent move and has helped Marois move into contention for a majority. Rightly or wrongly, it is popular. It allows the election to be reframed into a culture over this issues that spins in elements of Québécois identity politics and distracts from both the separtism issue and all the other issues on the table.

In that culture war, I am not a partisan. I think the bill is a horrific for reasons obvious to any regular reader of this blog. And I think it is horrific enough that it is well worth fighting over. If this election is a referendum in part on the Quebec Charter of Values, then so be it, I am happy to stand in opposition to it. Just as I am a dedicated partisan in other culture wars such as LGBT or reproductive rights, and am happy to fight elections over this issues if need be.

The problem can be that politicians use the culture wars to gain popularity and fight elections while being able to sidestep any substantive policy analysis, tackling any big problems like high debt levels or climate change, and the like. The Republicans in the US (and to some extent the Democrats too) are excellent at this, albeit with different cultural issues under contention than in Quebec.

What is so egregious about the Quebec Charter of Values (setting aside its content for the moment) is just how hopelessly transparent the political calculation is where it is not being fought over because of some legitimate tension and issue manifesting in society, but because one party thinks they can use the appeal of a specific cultural identity to win votes. On something like gay rights, there really was a legitimate sea change in cultural acceptance and this backlog of archaic discriminations that needed to be fought over and removed. It was a culture war worth having. This is not a culture war worth having, but one manufactured for us by a political calculation from a shallow party unwilling or unable to use bold policy as its method to attract voters.

I have written in the past about the effect of identity politics- and here specifically for the 2012 Quebec election, and here again - where when you have societies who vote based primarily on a cultural identity (ethnic, religious, or, in this case, being Québécois) it means that the traditional left right political divide becomes less meaningful and elections are fought less over values and policies to implement those values. Don't get me wrong, I am a stronger support of multiculturalism and like the aesthetic of a vibrant and distinct Québécois cultural identity whose nature and impact is shaped by societal discussion. It would be naive to think that this wouldn't seep into politics at all, but when it dominates the Quebec political discussion to the degree that it does, it puts distortions into the political system that result in less effective governance.

When Pauline Marois won her minority government, she had the ability to choose to run on bold, technocratic ideas, to choose core political values such as financial egalitarianism or environmental sustainability to make as the central identitifier or her party. She didn't choose to do this. Instead, the separatist party - the quintessential example of identity politics - knew that it couldn't do separatism right now, and so it shamefully tried to play a lesser identity politics card with the Charter of Values nonsense.

They deserve neither respect nor votes.

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