Quebec Nats wiped out?

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by George Kerevan

What a terrible election defeat for the Nats! In Quebec that is – at least if you believe the Scottish media. The Canadian federal general election on 2 May saw a stunning victory for the right-wing Conservative party under the leadership of Brian Harper. Overnight, the nationalist Bloc Quebecois lost 43 seats and was reduced to a rump of four MPs.

The electoral picture in Canada is now transformed – but in a rather different way from Scotland following the SNP’s stunning Holyrood success. First, the Canadian Tories have secured an outright majority after years of minority government.

Second, the once dominant Liberal Party has been left with only 34 seats and its leader, the journalist Michael Ignatieff, thrown out by the voters. The opposition role in the federal parliament will now be filled by the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Canadian equivalent of the UK Labour Party. The NDP increased its representation to 102 seats, mainly at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois (BQ).          

The electoral collapse of the BQ, and the success of the pan-Canadian NDP, has led many European commentators to pronounce the death of Quebec nationalism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For a start, by dint of its success, the NDP has become transformed into a party dominated by Quebec politics. In all of Canada outside Quebec the NDP gained only eight extra seats (up from 36 to 44). It even managed to lose two seats in Saskatchewan, once considered an NDP stronghold. Yet outside of Quebec the Canadian Conservatives increased their seat numbers by 28.

In Quebec, the NDP went up from a paltry one seat (at the 2008 elections) to a whopping 59 – providing more than half of the NDP’s federal total. It was that startling increase that allowed the party to leapfrog the Liberals and become – for the first time – a contender for power. The quid pro quo is that the NDP has been captured by Quebec MPs who represent the majority of its strength in the Ottawa parliament. (Imagine a majority of Westminster Labour MPs coming from Scotland and you’ll get the picture.)

How did the NDP come to supplant the Bloc Quebecois? Certainly Quebecers were tired of the ineffectiveness of the Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc Quebecois leader.  But the real answer is dramatically simple: the head of the NDP, Jack Layton made a special point of saying the NDP would reopen the constitutional question. Layton stated unambiguously: “The NDP will make sure that Quebec’s hopes and dreams are at the table every day in the [Canadian] House of Commons”.

In particular, Layton promised that his first order would be to introduce legislation that strengthens the language rights of French-speaking Quebecers working in federally-regulated businesses. Layton, who comes from Quebec, also said he would accept the results of any referendum that supported Quebec sovereignty.

What is the future of the Bloc Quebecois? The apparent electoral success of the NDP can be exaggerated, as it is the result of Canada’s first-past-the-post system. In fact, the Bloc got 23.4 per cent of the vote in Quebec yet only four seats. This compares to the NDP’s 42.9 per cent vote share and 59 seats in the province. The Bloc’s percentage vote is down from 38.1 per cent in 2008.

Founded some 20 years ago, the Bloc provided Quebecers with a sense that their grievances were being addressed at a federal level. But direct representation of the Quebec cause in Ottawa has been virtually eliminated. That could spark a revival of separatism in the province if and when he NDP opposition fails to deliver – very likely given the new Conservative majority.

While the Bloc contests federal elections its sister organisation, the Parti Quebecois, represents the nationalist movement at a Quebec level. Provincial elections are likely next year and the PQ is ahead in the polls. Currently, Quebec is governed by an ailing Liberal Party administration led by Jean Charest.

Recent political events in Canada and Scotland are linked. Globalisation and the internet have undermined the rationale of the old centralist states (and, in Canada’s case, their political offspring). Neither Scotland nor Quebec need channel their economic and cultural relations with the rest of the world through old, centralist structures. The voters have spoken.