Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

La Belle Province No More

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Vague Check, Strategic Planning, A House Divided, All Politics (Wednesday April 11, 2007 at 3:41 pm)

Liberal leader Stephane Dion commented yesterday on the recent Quebec election, suggesting that, contrary to many observations, the ADQ’s success in that province poses no threat to the Liberals’ hopes for federal seats.

Per M. Dion:

The votes for (ADQ Leader Mario) Mr. Dumont were in a large part protest votes. . .Mr. Harper [his federal opponent] cannot channel a protest vote because he is the government.”

An argument which could be disputed, to be certain. But that doesn’t undermine Dion’s point. After all, eight of the ten federal seats taken by the Conservatives in Quebec came at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois, not the Liberals. If the Tories continued to snag seats at that stunning pace, the Liberals would lose only one more to them, while possibly gaining a few (Papineau, par example?) back from the BQ.

The ADQ won 37 new seats in Quebec, of which 20 came from the provincial Liberals and 17 from the Parti Quebecois. Those are fairly even numbers, and they mean that, even if the ADQ got some votes from the Liberals as a protest, they could not have achieved their victory without overtaking the PQ — a feat the Liberals had not accomplished in those ridings. If the ADQ poses a worrisome threat, it seems to be more portentous for the separatist parties than for the Liberals.

But if the federal Liberals think they have nothing to fear, they’re wrong. The main reason why they might not recognize the threat is that it didn’t emerge with the recent election, even if the recent election showed some of its symptoms. The real threat is the Liberal Party of Canada’s increasing isolation within Quebec.

Consider this: from 1945 to 1980, in thirteen consecutive elections spanning thirty-five years, the Liberals took fewer than 47 (of 65-75) Quebec seats only twice: once in 1958, when John Diefenbaker swept the country, and again in 1962, when he faced off against an Anglophone Liberal leader, the short-termed Lester Pearson. Over that time, the Liberals took more than 60 seats six times and more than fifty-five nine times. They averaged roughly 53% of the vote in Quebec, hitting a low of 39.2% in 1962 when Pearson first fought Diefenbaker and a high of 68.2% in 1980, when Trudeau returned to champion constitutional repatriation.

Now consider this: from 1984 to 2006, in seven consecutive elections spanning twenty-two years, the Liberals took 36 (of 75) Quebec seats in their best showing — 2000, against Joe Clark (who never did well in Quebec), Preston Manning (who barely spoke French), and Gilles Duceppe (who was scorned for weak campaigning). In four of those campaigns, they failed to win as many as 20 seats, and broke 25 only twice. They averaged roughly 33.5% over that span, hitting a high of 44.2% in the 2000 campaign and a low of 20.7% in 2006 (the second post-sponsorship scandal campaign).

Which shows a significant dip in Liberal fortunes between 1980 and 1984. No points to those who can guess why.

But that’s not all — there’s another interesting point to consider: 21 seats in Quebec are in Montreal. In all but two of the thirteen elections before 1984, the Liberals took a majority of the seats outside of Montreal. In no election since has that happened. In 2000, the Liberals’ best showing since 1980, they managed merely 16 of the 54 seats outside of that City. In five of those seven elections, they did no better than six such seats. The Liberal Party has clearly maintained its former grip on the City of Montreal, but it has lost its strength beyond.

What the numbers show is a far more dangerous threat to the Liberals than anything posed by the ADQ. If the 1997 and 2000 election victories had as much to do with the Bloc Quebecois’s poor campaigning as it did the Liberals’ own performance, then their two positive showings had more to do with the lack of a third option than it did with any efforts of their own.

The Liberals’ best seat total in the latter elections — 36 in 2000 — was eleven seats more than their worst performance in the former — 25 in 1958; but it was achieved with virtually the same percentage of the vote (44.2% vs. 45.6%). Their worst share of the vote in the former elections — 39.2% in 1962 — was only 5% behind their 2000 peak, and better than any other performance between 1984 and 2006.

What this suggests is that the Liberals are a different party in Quebec now than they were before 1984. Before 1984, they could count on taking 50% or so of the Quebec vote and built a majority starting from the roughly 50 seats they expected there. Since then, their expectations should be for roughly 35% of the vote and far too few seats to rest easy before hearing the Ontario numbers.

Since 1984, the Liberals have had to rely on Ontario for their bedrock, and with that under serious attack since the disappearance of the Progressive Conservatives in 2004, there are no signs that this is a sustainable long-term strategy. The West of Canada still looks unwelcoming to what overtures Liberals have made; and the Maritimes hold too few seats for even dominance on the scale of 1997 to make a stand there.

Which means that the Liberals are faced with a serious problem in Quebec — they have lost their long-term stronghold without finding an alternative. If they cannot break out of Montreal in the face of what now seems a second viable alternative to the separatists, they will have to find a new and unfamiliar way to build majorities. And that strange future brings a promise of minority status at best and certain weakness for some time to come.

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