SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 109 - May 2007

All change in Quebec election

THIS SPRING’S general election in Quebec resulted in a major shake up of the political landscape, returning the province’s first hung parliament since the 19th century. Both the ruling federalist, centre-right Quebec Liberal Party and the opposition, pro-sovereignty Parti Québécois (PQ) suffered serious losses due to the emergence of the right-wing, populist Action Démocratique du Québec (ADQ). While Jean Charest’s Liberals won 48 seats and 33% of the vote, enough to be re-elected as a minority government, the major surprise was the success of the ADQ, led by Mario Dumont. The ADQ increased its representation in the Quebec National Assembly eight-fold, winning 41 seats (30% of the vote). The PQ was relegated to third place, with 36 seats (28%), the party’s lowest level of support since it first contested elections in 1970.

Significantly, a new left-wing party, Québec Solidaire, contested its first election and came close to winning in two electoral districts (with nearly 30% of the vote). The party won the endorsement of the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (CSN) trade union in Montreal and individual candidates won the support of other trade unions and union leaders. Overall, Québec Solidaire received 3.75% of the vote.

For over 30 years, Quebec politics was dominated by two parties, the Liberal Party of Quebec, which supports Canadian federalism (a unitary Canadian state), and the PQ, which calls for sovereignty or separation for Quebec. The PQ formed governments from 1976 to 1985 and from 1994 to 2003. Two referendums on independence were held during these years. In 1980, the option of ‘sovereignty association’ got the support of 40% of Quebecers. In 1995, 49.42% voted yes to sovereignty, including a majority of French speakers.

Federalists and the English-Canadian media claim the election broke the back of the sovereignty movement and marks the re-emergence of ‘normal’ politics in Quebec. However, voters had little to choose between the three major parties, all of which support neo-liberal economic policies to various degrees.

The PQ used to describe itself as social democratic and got support from trade unions. In fact, the PQ was always an uneasy coalition of left- and right-wing nationalists, with the right gaining dominance. In the recent election, party leader, Andre Boisclair, sought to shed the party’s association with labour and emphasised debt reduction. The Liberals also moved further to the right under premier Charest. The ADQ is the most rightwing of the parties. Its leader, Dumont, exploits xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants, particularly Muslims.

The election result, however, does not indicate the collapse of the separatist movement but its fracturing. During the election, polls indicated sovereignty had the support of 44% of Quebecers, almost twice the level of support of the PQ. The Parti Québécois’ decline is not due to a softening of support for an independent state of Quebec but the product of the PQ’s complete abandonment of any pretence of basing itself on the working class.

When it was formed in 1968, the PQ was a social democratic party with a strong affinity with the labour movement. After first winning power in 1976, the PQ instituted significant social reforms. However, the PQ governments exchanged the domination of French Canadians by an English ruling class for the domination of French Canadian workers by bosses who spoke French. The PQ became the representative of the francophone business class in Quebec.

Working-class activists, disgusted with the PQ’s move to the right, abandoned the party and created new political formations, which coalesced in early 2006 into Québec Solidaire. The new party brings together anti-globalisation activists, socialists, including the Parti Communiste du Québec, social democrats, feminists and various left-wing currents.

Despite the absence of a mass workers’ party, Quebec was able to retain the most extensive social welfare system in Canada. This is largely because it is the province with the largest and most militant labour movement, and militant student and women’s movements. Quebec has the lowest post-secondary tuition fees in Canada, the most comprehensive labour law, including a ‘no scab’ rule, and the only comprehensive system of public child care.

Charest’s right-wing Liberal government, which came to power in Quebec in 2003, tried to attack workers and students by proposing to curtail the public sector (particularly health care), contract out public services, and raise tuition fees. But these plans met mass resistance and strikes. Charest became the most unpopular Quebec premier in decades and his government was primed for defeat after a single term in office. However, the PQ was unable to present itself as an alternative to Charest’s neo-liberalism due to its own deepening allegiance to the capitalist class.

Action Démocratique du Québec was able to partially fill the vacuum. Dumont’s base is in rural Quebec and among the growing, conservative class of francophone entrepreneurs and professionals in the suburbs of Montreal and Quebec city. As a new party with a populist orientation, it also attracts support from nationalist (and some federalist) voters, who want change but do not know what sort of change they want. The ADQ also benefits from a protest vote against the ‘old line’ parties.

The ADQ is not a genuine radical alternative. It does not offer independence with healthy welfare provision, but the ‘modernisation of the Quebec state’ with cuts and the privatisation of public services, and a proposal that the federal state cedes jurisdiction to Quebec in 22 sectors. Dumont said he is neither a federalist nor a ‘sovereigntist’ but an ‘autonomist’. The ADQ’s most ‘radical’ policy is the creation of a two-tier, privatised health care system. The ADQ also represents a re-emergence of ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. It whipped up a debate on the ‘reasonable accommodation’ of minorities. Rather than reject the ADQ’s xenophobic pronouncements, the PQ and Liberals rushed to occupy the same ground.

The failure of the ruling class to resolve the national question in Quebec complicates the situation facing the working class. Socialists support the right to self-determination for Quebec, up to and including independence. But socialists oppose right-wing nationalism and bigotry. The solution for Quebecers is not to turn their backs on immigrant workers with a retreat into ethnic nationalism and xenophobia. It is to unite French, English and immigrant workers in a movement that fights capitalist oppression, defends the gains of the working class, and mobilises in the streets, schools and workplaces for an end to poverty, decent housing and jobs for all through the creation of an independent socialist Quebec and a voluntary socialist federation of the Americas.

Many workers looking for an alternative to the PQ, Liberals and ADQ turned to Québec Solidaire, which was able to get an impressive vote for such a new party but lacked the resources to fully realise its potential. It was a big achievement that Solidaire was able to get on the ballot in 123 of Quebec’s 125 electoral districts. More than half of its candidates were women and a number came from immigrant backgrounds. As well as winning the support of some sectors of the union movement, Solidaire earned praise from the leader of the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec as the only party addressing the concerns of Native people. The party ran a diverse slate of activists in the labour, social, feminist and student movements and was able to recruit 1,000 people and grow to over 6,500 members during the election.

The party’s major weakness is its political manifesto. It is anti-big business, explicitly supports sovereignty, calling for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution for an independent Quebec state, and advocates progressive social policies, such as a $10 minimum wage, the abolition of university tuition fees, the construction of 4,000 social housing units, a nationalised system of Pharmacare, the investment of over $1 billion in health care, the nationalisation of wind power, and major investment in public transit.

However, Solidaire’s programme is not explicitly socialist and it fails to call for the economy to be brought under public, democratic control. Two leading members of the Parti Communiste, André Parizeau and Francis Gagnon Bergman, were candidates for Solidaire. Socialist Alternative (CWI Canada) supports the Parti Communiste call for Solidaire to adopt a socialist programme and its analysis that, through struggle and debate, Solidaire can develop politically.

With the election of a right-wing National Assembly, and the surge of the neo-liberal, social conservative ADQ, class struggle will re-emerge. With bold socialist policies and tactics, Solidaire can successfully lead mass resistance. By proving to workers and youth that Solidaire is their party, it can grow in size and influence and make big gains in the next elections. Quebec needs a mass working-class party that can fight both inside and outside the Quebec National Assembly.

Andrew Messing


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