Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A few thoughts on the forthcoming Quebec election

Quebec goes to the polls in a few days' time, in a provincial election which could in theory set in train a sequence of events leading to a third referendum on independence. I recall watching a live stream of the election results last time round, and fascinating it was too - although the anti-independence Liberals held on for another term, it was generally agreed that the Parti Québécois had secured a moral victory by finishing a close second and by comprehensively seeing off the party (the ADQ) that had pushed it into third place in 2007. In a way, it almost looked as if the PQ had "provisionally won the next election", because it seemed inevitable that by 2012 or 2013 the electorate would be looking for a change after a decade of Liberal rule, and that the PQ would be best-placed to take advantage.

Four years on, however, the legacy of that moral victory looks somewhat less than clear-cut. The PQ do indeed hold a lead in most of the polls, but it's a narrow one, and a new party called the CAQ has risen from the ashes of the ADQ to once again threaten the Liberal-PQ duopoly - something which is potentially dangerous for the PQ under a FPTP system that usually severely punishes any party outside the top two. Intriguingly, the CAQ is led by a former pro-independence government minister who claims that his new party is neither sovereigntist nor federalist. To Scottish (and Northern Irish) ears that probably sounds like sophistry - people in this country who want to "move on" from the constitutional debate generally want to do so in a decidedly anti-independence way. But to be fair, the CAQ are only suggesting that the sovereignty debate be put on the back-burner for ten years, and claim that in the meantime they will advocate neither independence nor Canadian unity. This could yet be a dilemma that the SNP have to grapple with one day, because if the worst happens and there is a No vote to independence in 2014, the question of how long it would be before another referendum is appropriate would be very much of the 'how long is a piece of string' variety.

As for the PQ themselves, I'm always struck by the unalloyed hatred the party attracts in English-speaking Canada - way beyond anything the SNP have to put up with here. I know that doesn't seem possible, but just take a look at the comments section of Canadian news articles some time. There was a recent article branding the PQ as "xenophobes" for wanting to introduce a law requiring that candidates for public office should be fluent in French. On the face of it, that is indeed a bit of a draconian step in a province that has a large number of native English speakers, but there is an arguable justification for the proposal. At the last federal election, the social democratic NDP shocked everyone, not least themselves, by sweeping the board in Quebec. Because it was such a surprise, many of the successful candidates were 'paper candidates' from other parts of Canada who couldn't speak French. By definition, this means that much of Quebec now has very poor parliamentary representation - an MP who can't communicate properly with the majority of his constituents is not a good MP. It's impossible to imagine this scenario happening in a majority French-speaking independent state, so it's understandable that a legal remedy is being sought to ensure that as far as possible it can't happen to French-speakers as a linguistic minority within Canada either. But it's still a bad, illiberal idea, and also tactically foolish - why introduce a law that will ensure your opponents put up a better quality of candidate against you?


  1. It is amazing. Of course there is a perception that people in the province are bilingual, as for example are many Western Islanders in Scotland, but in fact outside of Montréal, a genuinely bilingual city, and Québec City, partly bilingual, the rest of small town Québec is pretty exclusively French speaking. (Interestingly, for me at any rate, a French which includes many words and expressions from the native Canadian languages.)

    I have many friends in Québec most of whom either speak no English, or very little, certainly not enough to deal with political business.

  2. And of course even in the bilingual Western Isles, it would be more or less unthinkable to have an MP or MSP who couldn't speak Gaelic fluently.

  3. This is interesting. Firstly because of the underlying threat that even a comprehensive no vote for independence won't stop the SNP - the neverendum will be a reality:-). How often do you think it's appropriate to keep asking the people if they want independence?

    Going back to the Quebec elections,as you say, the idea that candidates should be French speaking is so bad and illiberal. If someone stood in the Western Isles who couldn't speak Gaelic, nobody would vote for them - and that's how it should be in Quebec, I would have thought.

    You can't call yourself a democracy and then start putting barriers in the way of people being candidates.

    This is a good piece - I've put it in this week's Scottish Roundup.

  4. Hi Caron, I'm on holiday at the moment, using my mobile, so it'll be hard to give a very full answer to your question! But "underlying threat"? I can't see how the belief that a No vote would NOT abolish one part of tbe democraticprocess for all time is a "threat". On the contrary, the idea that future generations should be stripped of the right to decide their own constitutional structures is the real threat.

    But clearly constitutional referendums can't be held every five minutes, or even every five years. Alex Salmond has said this referendum will settle matters for a generation, and I think that's right.

    Thanks for including this post in the roundup.


  5. I imagine that a NO vote would not stop the SNP from existing. (I'm not certain about a YES vote either, given the current size of the party, and the lack of similar visions on topics other than constitution to be found in other parties.)

    What a No vote would say is that, at present, there is insufficient support for independence, for whatever reason.

    But every year the demographic changes; people die, people become eligible to vote, so the situation is fluid, and I'm not sure if it is right that we should be held to the decisions of people long after they are dead.

    Of course, I too can see that we cannot have a referendum every few years, even every 4 or 5 years when there is a Scottish general election, but I rather think that "a generation", normally taken to mean 25 years as I understand it, would be too long, if signs from the public in the form of voting tendencies, opinion polls, etc, indicated an increase in interest in independence.

    We cannot say that because the SNP won what, by Scottish electoral system standards, was a massive victory on a manifesto that included an independence referendum, that that necessarily means that the majority of Scots want independence: we would not be able to say that in the future, either. People could have been (and could be) voting in favour of any number of other commitments in a manifesto.

    But I think that if there was a demonstrable support for independence in 10 years’ time, it might be reasonable to re-test public opinion officially.

    After all a referendum is only a test of people's opinions. It may seem like a big deal to us, but other countries use them frequently (Switzerland obviously, but the USA too, has a series of referenda, local, state and federal, at most elections).

    It is real democracy in action.

    Of course, it's not cheap, but it's not nearly as expensive, or destructive, as going to war, and we manage to do that with monotonous regularity.

    Of course I believe that 2014 will prove successful for the Yes campaign, but one should be prepared for all eventualities, don’t you think? .

    Bonnes vacances, James, et bonne rentrée.