The sudden death of former finance minister Jim Flaherty, which happened less than 72 hours after Quebecers resoundingly elected a new government, quickly—and rightly—delayed detailed analysis of the result. But now that Canada has said farewell to Mr. Flaherty with a state funeral, it is time to consider some important election lessons from Quebec that could have consequences for next year’s federal election.
First, campaigns matter. As we have seen in BC, Alberta and now Quebec, what political parties say during the campaign can make a difference, regardless of where the parties start when the writ is dropped. Philippe Couillard’s campaign focused on the “real issues”—jobs, economic growth and fiscal stability—and he was able to put a great deal of distance between this solid platform and the very inconsistent messages coming out of the Parti Québécois (PQ) on everything, including the referendum, the Charter, tax reductions and scandals. Pauline Marois seemed to have a new issue each week, and it became very clear that she was off her script almost from the beginning, particularly with the introduction of Pierre Karl Péladeau as an arm-pumping separatist candidate.
Second, voters sense when they are being used. The Charter was a scheme to appeal to populist instincts and hot-button politics, and bypass issues like the economy that are more difficult to address. By focusing on identity politics, Marois was trying to stoke the emotion of fear in old-stock Quebecers who comprise the vast majority of Quebec’s population. This type of resort to wedge politics appeared to resonate throughout most of last year and was the primary reason Marois called the election. But, coupled with the obviously disingenuous statements about only holding a referendum when Quebecers were ready, her message underscored that she was trying to distract the electorate.
Third, leaders must be seen as leaders. While Marois was sowing division and discord, Couillard was clearly talking about a place in society for all Quebecers, regardless of religious or linguistic background. He emphasized this in his acceptance speech when he said “we are all Quebecers.” This bold statement, delivered in English and French, was designed to drive a stake through the heart of the cultural and linguistic paranoia the PQ was sowing.
The federal government should ponder these lessons in the lead up to the next federal election and consider whether it is worth expending political capital on policies that focus on problems that are marginal. The Conservatives should let Thomas Mulcair crusade on such things as democratic rights, if he so chooses. The government will be better off focusing on the real issues of tax reduction, debt relief and opportunity for the middle class. Right now, these fundamentals are being sidelined by the preoccupation with secondary issues, and this in turn is distracting media attention from the government’s performance in managing the economy.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is doing a very good job of identifying with a broad cross-section of Canadian society, including the Conservatives’ traditional English and rural support base, the Ukrainian and Jewish communities and Aboriginal Canadians. He needs to continue to broaden his reach, particularly in Quebec, by focusing on the issue that unites all of us: economic security. As the government moves relentlessly toward its fourth term in office, it is hardly surprising that the sentiment for change will begin to grow. It happens to all governments. So the lessons from Quebec are worth remembering.
People have been underestimating Mr. Harper from the first day he ran for office. My bet is that he will see the lessons from Quebec and adjust the government agenda accordingly. This offers the best chance to protect the legacy of economic stability that both he and Mr. Flaherty worked so hard to create.