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CAQ’s victory in Quebec, rise of conservative provincial parties, a ‘wake-up call’ for Trudeau’s Liberals, say Grit MPs

By Jolson Lim and Abbas Rana      

Coalition Avenir Quebec's majority government victory on Oct. 1 follows Doug Ford's Ontario Progressive Conservative victory in June. Meanwhile, Progressive Conservatives may form government in New Brunswick while Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party in Alberta are polling high.

CAQ leader and premier-designate Francois Legault's party won a overwhelming majority government last Monday night, crushing both the Quebec Liberals and Parti Québécois. Photograph courtesy of Francois Legault's Flickr
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The “restless electorate” has thrown incumbent Liberals out of power in four provinces in the last 16 months, which is “an alarming trend” and a “wake-up call” for the federal Liberals as they prepare for the 2019 federal election, say Liberal MPs and political insiders, and a leading pollster says federal parties should not overlook the success of right-leaning provincial political parties in recent elections.

“To me, this is alarming,” said one Quebec Liberal MP who spoke on not-for-attribution basis only as no federal party wants to be seen as worried about the 2019 election. “We should pay close attention and try to analyze and understand what’s going on.” 

On Oct. 1, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), led by François Legault, surprised pollsters and easily won a majority government in a strong defeat of the Quebec Liberals and Parti Québécois, the two provincial parties that have traded forming government since 1970. It’s the first time in nearly 50 years the province hasn’t been represented by either a separatist party or by the Liberals.  

Under the leadership of Mr. Legault, who co-founded the CAQ in 2011 and was a former Parti Québécois minister, the party won 74 seats out of the province’s 125 seats, pushing the provincial Liberals into official opposition status with 32 seats. The Parti Québécois won only nine seats and lost official party status in the assembly, while the left-wing nationalist Quebec Solidaire saw 10 of its members elected.

The CAQ dominated in the semi-rural and township-filled regions to the south of Montreal and Québec City. In the 2015 election, the federal ridings directly south of Montreal were divided between the NDP and Liberals, while the ridings south of Québec City, went to the Conservatives. Mr. Legault’s party also won big in areas north of both major cities, which, at the federal level in 2015, were split between the three main federal parties and the Bloc Québécois.

Mr. Legault ran on a nationalist platform to push for more provincial power, to cut back on Quebec’s immigration numbers by 20 per cent, and to end Quebec’s dependence on $11-billion of annual equalization payments from Ottawa, of which federal revenue is transferred between have and have-not provinces, among other promises.

In his first news conference post-election, he said his and the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) can find common ground on economic issues, and that he was a “pragmatic guy.”

Mr. Legault’s victory is the latest in a string of provincial conservative parties forming government. In April 2016, Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives won in Manitoba. In June, Doug Ford’s PCs were elected to a majority government. The PCs in New Brunswick may form government after a close election on Sept. 24 that saw no party with a majority, while Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party is polling well in Alberta ahead of an election next year. And, last year, the B.C. Liberals lost power to the NDP after winning four back-to-back elections and staying in power for about 16 years. The NDP has formed a minority government with support from the Green Party.

Premier-designate Francois Legault, at a rally in early September. He ran on fighting for more provincial power for Quebec, something that could clash with the Trudeau government. Photograph courtesy of Francois Legault’s Instagram

A former senior federal Liberal said the CAQ’s surprise majority win is worrisome ahead of the 2019 federal election for the Liberals and said they are wondering what it means for them next year.

“The provincial election results will be a cause for concern for federal MPs from those areas,” the senior Liberal said, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There are certain regions where those election results are going to cause some reflection and concern.”

“You’ve got to look at all of them [provincial election results] individually, but the lesson is that the electorate is restless,” the former senior Liberal said. “And obviously the parties that are winning power are better at making sure that their message is getting through to people.

But traditionally, the strategist said, it helps the federal Liberals when their adversaries are in power provincially in Ontario and Quebec. But, it remains to be seen if that is still the case in 2019. 

“Federal Liberals benefit when they have adversaries at the provincial level in Ontario, and Quebec. It helps them at the federal level, doesn’t hurt,” said the strategist. 

Outgoing Quebec premier Philippe Couillard, in a media interview right before the election, described the “incumbency syndrome” as a major challenge for his party’s re-election campaign.

“It’s harder and harder for incumbents everywhere,” he told The Globe and Mail, “and it’s true we have been in office many years.”

Quebec pollster Jean-Marc Léger, meanwhile, said it’s not uncommon for Quebec voters to vote inconsistently along the political spectrum for both provincial and federal levels and said it’s a phenomenon which some in the province call the “belt and suspenders policy.”  

“Quebecers tend to minimize risk and vote for the red option at the federal government and the blue option at the provincial government, or the opposite,” he said.

However, Mr. Léger said the federal Liberals’ popularity in the province right now is in line with maintaining the 40 out of 78 federal Quebec seats they currently hold. In a March poll by his polling firm, Léger, it found the Liberals hovered at around 42 per cent in voter support in the province. The party’s popularity in polling has declined in Quebec and Atlantic Canada, but only slightly and with minimal impact, he said.

“I don’t think it’s good news but it’s not bad news for the Liberal government,” Mr. Léger said. “There is no direct link between the CAQ and the Conservative Party. So it’s not like other provinces.”

While some CAQ members have links to the federal Conservatives, there are stronger links between the Tories and the UCP in Alberta, for example. Its leader, Mr. Kenney, was a former top cabinet minister in the Harper government. A number of Ontario PC MPPs also have ties to the federal party, and it’s common to see members of both parties help each other out during election time, something that wasn’t apparent with the recent Quebec election.

However, Mr. Léger said it’s important not to overlook the rise of conservative-leaning provincial parties, given that they represent large swaths of Canada’s population. He said if national poll figures stay the same headed into the federal election, for the federal Liberals, “it will not be an easy election across the country, except for Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.”

But if federal Liberal poll numbers slip further in those conservative-swung provinces, and Mr. Léger said it slightly has in recent months, that could make them battleground provinces next year.

“The trend has not been in favour of the Liberals,” he said of polling numbers. “It will be a tough and tight election.” 

According to the weekly Nanos rolling poll, the federal Liberals had the support of 41.4 per cent of Quebecers last week. The NDP support in the province was at 15.1 per cent, the Conservatives at 14.4 per cent, the Bloc 10.7 per cent, and the Green Party support was at 4.3 per cent.

For rookie Liberal MP Pat Finnigan (Miramichi-Grand Lake, N.B.), who won his riding in the last election with a 13 per cent margin, said that any time a political party loses an election at the provincial or federal level, it’s an opportunity to analyze the results carefully to map out the future political strategy. 

“You’ve got to try and see what the people want. If there’s something they’re not happy with, you’ve got to deal with it,” he said, adding that he will reach out to grassroots party members in his riding to talk about what the issues are and what they’re not happy about.

Mr. Finnigan has seven provincial ridings in his federal riding. Of these, the Liberals won three, the People’s Alliance two, and the Conservatives and the Green Party won one party each, in the most recent election.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with outgoing Quebec premier Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Quebec premier Phillipe Couillard in Ottawa on Oct. 3, 2017 at the First Ministers’ Meeting., pictured at a first ministers meeting in 2017. The Quebec Liberals are now the official opposition. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Meanwhile, the CAQ were able to win ridings in southern Quebec with a large presence of dairy farmers.

Mr. Legault has promised to defend the industry and said on Oct. 2 that his top priority entering his mandate is to protect supply managed farmers in the province. According to Statistics Canada, there are 5,163 dairy farms in Quebec. The dairy industry plays an active political role both at the provincial and federal level.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University Rosedale, Ont.) said on Oct. 1 that supply managed farmers will be “fully compensated,” after Canada gave up some market share in dairy in reaching an agreement on the new United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement, but has not yet released any details. The federal government is currently working on a compensation package that it will offer to dairy farmers to offset their losses as a result of the newly renegotiated trade deal.

Mr. Léger said how the Liberals move on providing support for supply-managed farmers slightly hurt by new provisions in the USMCA, could hurt their popularity in the province and at least more than the fact the CAQ was elected.

“This is the core of the CAQ movement,” Mr. Léger said of areas where there is a large presence of supply-managed businesses. “This can be transformed for the Conservatives if the Liberals don’t deliver what they’re supposed to deliver and explain to Quebecers exactly what is behind this agreement with the U.S.”

Mr. Léger added that if Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party can take votes away from the Conservatives, it’s like the vote “counts twice” for the Liberals. Mr. Bernier represents Beauce, Que., and won his riding in the last election with 58.9 per cent of the vote. 

While out of government, the Quebec Liberals were able to mostly win in the islands of Montreal and Laval, taking all but nine provincial seats. The CAQ was only able to pick up one seat in the Laval and none in Montreal.

The provincial electoral map of both islands is noticeably similar to the one from the 2015 federal election: both the federal and provincial Liberals won Laval and the western portions of the island of Montreal, while the left-wing NDP or Quebec Solidaire won seats to the east of downtown. 

Liberal MP Marc Miller (Ville-Marie-Le Sud-Ouest-Île-des-Soeurs, Que.) told The Hill Times that he’s not worried the strong CAQ result will impact his party’s popularity in the province, saying “electors vote for different reasons provincially than they do federally.” In provincial ridings overlapping with his federal one in downtown Montreal, the Liberals retained two seats and Quebec Solidaire won one.

“When you look at Ontario and the provincial Liberals, you’re looking at a much different dynamic we would be facing, strategically,” he said. “In people’s minds, you’re talking about parties that have been there for a long time. You can apply that analysis to other parts of Canada.”

NDP MP Brigitte Sansoucy (Saint-Hyacinthe-Bagot, Que.), who represents a southern Quebec riding, said “I don’t think you can take one situation at the provincial level and just transpose it at the federal level.” She told The Hill Times that she has four provincial ridings in her federal riding and CAQ won all four but still is not worried about herself in 2019 arguing that people vote for provincial and federal candidates differently. 

“We’ve seen it in Alberta, for example, where they voted NDP at the provincial level, and then Conservative at the federal level [in 2015].,” she said. “People wanted change. In fact, [some voted for two] parties that have never been in power. It was quite strong in that regard. We really need to listen to that voice for change.”

Another key theme of Mr. Legault’s victory was the rejection of two establishment parties who have shaped provincial politics along federalist and sovereignist lines for almost five decades. Nevertheless, the CAQ want more power for Quebec, and one Bloc Quebecois MP said his party could be their ally.

“The will of the Quebecers was to [throw] out the Liberal Party in Quebec,” said Bloc MP Gabriel Ste-Marie (Joliette, Que.), who won his riding in the last election with 33.3 per cent of the vote. There are three provincial ridings in Ste-Martin’s federal riding. In the election, the Parti Québécois won one seat and the CAQ two.

Mr. Ste-Marie said the new provincial government in Quebec would likely ask for more rights and resources for the province, and said the Bloc would be an ally of the CAQ in promoting the province’s demands. Mr. Ste-Marie said the Bloc is “not just a sovereignist party” and wants to be “the voice” for Quebecers” on any issue affecting the province.

“Our raison d’être, our goal is to be the voice of Quebecers here. When [the CAQ] will ask for more transfers, more rights for Quebec, we will be an ally,” Mr. Ste-Marie said. “We are not only a sovereignist party, we do want to be the voice of Quebec as a nation to speak for their interests, make sure their interests will be protected well.”

The Bloc currently does not have the official party party status in the House and holds only 10 seats in the 338-member House, but Mr. Ste-Marie said that his party has set a target of winning 30 seats in the province in 2019.

arana@hilltimes.com

jlim@hilltimes.com

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