Joseph Facal was a cabinet minister in the Parti Québécois governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry between 1998 and 2003. He now teaches sociology and management at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales in Montreal and writes a column for the mass-circulation tabloid Le Journal de Montréal and a blog on Le Journal’s website. We present excerpts from his blog, containing some of his more trenchant observations on Quebec’s recent election campaign. These articles were translated by Bob Chodos.

Change, but what change?

August 27 (election day –8)

If the most recent Léger Marketing poll is accurate, the Liberal Party could suffer its worst defeat since 1867. Completely abandoned by francophones, the Liberals survive only thanks to massive support from anglophones and allophones.

All you have to do is say the word “referendum,” and anglophones and allophones line up in unison behind a party that has a very thin record in office and a complicated relationship with ethical standards.

In the advanced Western democracies, I know of no other case where a party is cut off from the majority group but can hope to gain power solely on the basis of massive support from ethnocultural minorities. Of course, they have every right to do this.

This rout of the Liberals in the francophone community can be explained by the desire for change. The Liberals can’t offer a single positive reason to vote for them, so all they can do is paint the PQ and the CAQ as parties that will bring troubled waters.

However, the PQ and CAQ are presenting two radically opposed conceptions of change.

Putting the difference in its simplest form, the PQ is proposing changes on identity questions and in relations between Quebec and Canada. On economic and social questions, it supports what has been the underlying philosophy of the Quebec Model since the Quiet Revolution, as if Quebec had barely changed.

Still in schematic form, the CAQ sees things in reverse. It supports the status quo in Quebec-Canada relations, but it seeks profound change in the economic and social orientations that have been predominant in Quebec for many years.

Simple, isn’t it? Actually, it’s too simple. When you look more deeply, each of the two opposition parties has a huge Achilles heel.

In today’s circumstances, a sovereigntist might well think that a referendum in the short term is not realistic. But in saying that he would vote No if there were a referendum, François Legault crosses the line between strategic retreat and outright renunciation. I never thought he would go that far.

He tells Pauline Marois that a third referendum defeat would be a catastrophe for Quebec, which is true. So why in creation would he contribute to this catastrophe by voting No if he really has the future of Quebec at heart?

He replies that if he were leader of the opposition, he would completely refuse to join either of the referendum sides. How does he reconcile this mind-boggling abdication of his responsibilities with the alleged courage that he is supposed to embody?

As for Madame Marois, she wants to broaden Quebec’s autonomy within Canada to whip up sovereignty. I agree with that. But it is troubling that she has accepted the ridiculous idea of referendums by popular initiative, which wouldn’t hold water for a second if it were applied to a referendum on the national question, and in which she does not really believe.

The rest of her program is based on the culture of pseudo-free stuff, corporatism and refusal to encourage individual responsibility, which belongs to a bygone era.

There are nine days left in the campaign. You say, dear voter, that you want change. Very well. Now you need to ask yourself, in light of your interests and your values, what kind of change you want.

The wisdom of the undecided

August 29 (election day –6)

I left partisan politics in 2003. Sometimes it seems to me that it was a hundred years ago.

I say that because I’m irritated by the annoying tone and shortsightedness of the emails that party activists send me.

Was I really once like them? Was I that incapable of maintaining critical distance?

If I was, I apologize to everyone who at one time had the same feelings on my account that I’m experiencing now.

I wrote in a column that the Charest government is surrounded by a disagreeable whiff of ethical laxity and that it is thoroughly worn out.

Apparently not paying attention to any of that, Liberal activists tell me that Pauline Marois wants to break up their Canada.

No nuance, no distance, not the slightest question of stepping back for a critical look.

Pauline Marois has spent the last few days contradicting herself on questions that are at the heart of her political agenda.

Can a person who is not fluent in French be a candidate in an election or not? This is not a matter of detail.

If a petition signed by X number of people requests a referendum on sovereignty, will that automatically bring about a referendum or not?

If the answer is yes, does that mean that these people are more qualified than the premier to judge whether it is opportune to hold a referendum? And if the answer is no, then why in creation would they waste their time standing in the mall getting people to sign their petition?

I bring this up, and inevitably a PQ activist will tell me that I’m no longer really one of them.

No nuance, no distance, not the slightest question of stepping back for a critical look.

I write that the CAQ has simplistic answers to complicated questions and sees things narrowly from the point of view of the balance sheet.

Don’t worry, a CAQ activist will come forward and tell me that none of that matters in the least because the time has come for real change.

No nuance, no distance, not the slightest question of stepping back for a critical look.

Léger Marketing tells us that 29 per cent of voters are still undecided. Every day I run into people who ask me whom they should vote for. I refuse to answer and I tell them that they will make the right choice.

When I was a committed activist, I looked down on undecided voters. I found them weak, vacillating, opportunistic, incoherent, etc.

Let’s be clear: there really are many such people among the undecided. The kind of people who want “change” when it affects other people, but not for themselves. The kind of people who will vote for X because they don’t like Y’s hairstyle.

This time, I swear I’ve never seen so many undecided voters who are informed, intelligent and educated and who take their responsibilities as citizens seriously. They are among the wise.

Troubled waters ahead

September 10 (election day +6)

A theory has begun to make the rounds in PQ circles: the presence of Québec Solidaire is what prevented the PQ from winning a majority on September 4.

In 18 constituencies, people have told me, this small sovereigntist party took votes away from the PQ that would have allowed it to win a majority. Therefore, the suggestion is that the PQ should move even closer to Québec Solidaire and seek to merge with it.

The theory doesn’t stand up to examination.

First of all, for many people who voted QS, the PQ will never be sufficiently this or sufficiently that to be to their liking. Second, there were a lot more sovereigntists who voted for the CAQ than for QS, even though the CAQ is federalist. And finally, to merge with QS the PQ would need to move further to the left, while 58 per cent of the electorate voted for two centre-right parties.

Clearly, there are troubled waters ahead. However you look at it, there will be no smooth sailing for the new PQ government.

First of all, its narrow victory shows that it does not have strong support among Quebecers.

It defeated the previous government – the most consistently unpopular government in the entire history of polling – by barely 0.7 per cent. And it was only 4 per cent ahead of another party that didn’t exist nine months ago.

You will tell me that a narrow victory is still a victory, and that’s true. But steering the ship out to sea will not be easy, and even then there will be ambushes awaiting it at every turn.

Because it is a minority government, it won’t be able to implement large elements of its program. PQ activists, who are strongly inclined toward mutiny, may well become impatient.

“Sovereigntist governance” is based on demanding a series of concessions from Ottawa. When these demands come from a government that has the support of less than a third of the electorate, it’s hard to imagine that their rejection by Mr. Harper (which is assured) will provoke a wave of popular indignation.

The PQ’s economic commitments were conceived to appeal to left-wing voters. They make the business community uneasy, and there is no one in the PQ caucus to reassure that community. Public finances are already seriously strained.

Now let’s try to imagine the future. A minority government rarely lasts for more than two years.

Let’s suppose that the Liberal Party, after a dynamic and invigorating leadership race, chooses Philippe Couillard as its leader. He has presence, strength and stature, and I don’t think for a moment that the circumstances under which he left the government will come back to haunt him.

François Legault will have had time to put his party on a more solid foundation. While the number of seats it won was disappointing, the number of votes it received on its first time out was very impressive. Next time it will have a more seasoned organization, more money and a better program.

In short, the next election campaign could well be a very difficult one for the PQ. Its opponents will be stronger and it’s hard to see how the government will have a long list of accomplishments on which to base its campaign.

The future may show that, on September 4, the PQ let its best opportunity slip away.