The defeat of the Parti Qubecois in the recent Quebec election sneaked up on news junkies, who were busy watching the invasion of Iraq. But there it was: the more-or-less federalist provincial Liberals, under leader Jean Charest, won 76 seats in the Assembly, up from 50, and took 46% of the vote. The governing party fell to 45 seats from 67, and took only 33% of the vote, its lowest total since 1973.
Those who find meaning in elections — and they are not always right in doing so — have been split on the meaning of this one, and their interpretations seem to depend unnervingly on their preconceptions. There are those who see it as a final, or at least generational, repudiation of the PQ’s sovereigntist project; others who insist it is a “new chance” for constitutional changes (read: a power grab by the provinces); some who fear pressure on the new government to “deliver” on increased powers for Quebec; and some grumpy disciples of Donald Creighton waiting for the millipede of nationalist blackmail to drop yet another shoe.
The reality might be a little more prosaic, but it is, at last, a little more reassuring. For it seems the baby-boomers are in retreat from politics in a lot of places, no less in Quebec, and their pet projects, pet theories, and pet hatreds are simply not as big a concern to present-day voters.
Certainly the platforms of the two major parties say much about the evolution of Quebec politics: both the Liberals and the PQ realized that the surest way to disaster was to reopen the old constitutional wounds. Thus the Liberals said nothing, and the PQ — forced by its own raison d’tre to say something about sovereignty — watered down the sovereigntist option and promised to wait for a public mandate before bringing it up again.
One further example is the modest electoral success of the third party, Mario Dumont’s Action Dmocratique du Qubec, which took four seats and won 18% of the vote, up from 11% in the previous election. The ADQ, it should be remembered, was founded by disaffected nationalist Liberals, including Jean Allaire, who originally modelled their new party’s platform on Allaire’s quasi-sovereigntist report of 1991.
Electorally the ADQ went nowhere until it buried its nationalist agenda and became the party of the tax-cutters; then it won a series of byelections and vaulted to the top of the polls. (Its anti-tax stand won it some admirers on the right wing in the rest of the country, which says something about the willingness of tax-cut enthusiasts to cozy up to unsavory political bedfellows.)
The separatism debates that stultified Canadian political debate for years, and hypnotized many Canadians into believing the very existence of their country was on the line every second of every day for four decades, have maybe run their course. Good. It was always a foolish exercise, serving mainly to indulge an intelligentsia that should have known better. It consumed too much of our energy for too long — energy that should have been turned to bettering the country, not saving it from shadows.
Assuming Canada can at last turn the page on that sorry episode of its history, and assuming further that other governments run their jurisdictions with some level of economic common sense, we can look forward to some reasonably bright days ahead in this country. The weakness in the Canadian dollar has historically been traced to three causes — fiscal carelessness, a commodity-dependent economy, and the fear of Quebec separatism. The first is much diminished, but still a real threat; the second was always more perception than reality; and perhaps now the third can be seen for the paper tiger it always has been.
If the Liberals are ready to dismantle the long-term consensus of economic intervention, which has been the Quebec way since the time of Jean Lesage, there may be good years to come for the Quebec economy as well. Certainly the most successful businesses will be more successful in an economy undistorted by the web of subsidies and tax breaks that built up over the years.
But that means dismantling an economic framework that has traditionally favoured the mining industry, too. Say what you like about sovereigntists, they have always been generous to this industry and enthusiastic promoters of mining and mineral exploration in the province. It is Quebec that maintained the best deal in “super-flow-through” shares, and it is Quebec that has traditionally supported its mining industry with high levels of spending on geoscience. And that benefit did not go solely to companies domiciled in Quebec.
The mining industry may find itself with a sudden attachment to the old ways of government intervention. If the old ways are really on their way out, let’s hope the lesson is a gentle one.