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The rise and fall of the Liberal Party in Quebec

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For many decades especially after the Second World War, the Liberals dominated the Quebec political scene at the federal level. Even when Canadians elected the "Progressive" Conservative Diefenbaker in the 1960s, Liberals stayed outrageously ahead. Until the late 1980s, Conservatives were unable to get more than a handful of MPs in Quebec.

Liberals had many cards in their hands. They became associated with the Keynesian policies that shaped the political and social landscape of the post-war era. The public sector was tremendously expanded. Many semi-skilled jobs were created in the manufacturing sector employing lots of working class and ex-rural folks Québécois and immigrants. Canada's economy in the meantime continued to provide raw materials to the ever expanding US market which benefited the huge primary sector in Quebec.

There was also political spin. Although totally under the shadow of the US, the Canadian State made itself believe that it was becoming an important state. Imperialism at that time needed a sort of a "good cop", totally subordinated to the US, but at the same time with an appearance of autonomy. Ottawa was glad to become the "honest broker" (not to say the mail-boy) between the US and some of its adversaries. Liberal luminaries were happy to play theatrics in Cuba and "red" China, for example to the satisfaction of Washington who wanted to have an indirect entry to the "Commies". In the meanwhile, the US was also glad to have Canada as a "loyal subordinate" in platforms like the UN and NATO (and later the G8).

In the late 1960s, the Liberals started to slip in Quebec with the concurrent rise of the Nationalists. Trudeau and some of his cronies thought they would be clever by playing the "French connection" game in Ottawa, convincing, for a short while, many Québécois that he was there to defend their rights. Part of his strategy was to minimize Quebec nationalism by reinforcing the traditional practice of multicultural patronage and ethnicity. Ethnic "barons" were heavily supported to get the "ethnic vote" for the Liberals especially in Montreal.

All of that did not lead anywhere but to a miserable defeat of Trudeau in 1976 when the PQ was elected, after his ridiculous attempt to terrorize social and national movements in 1970. In that same period, the Liberals started to dump Keynesian policies just like most of the center-right governments elsewhere. Later in 1980, Trudeau made a brief comeback to head a "rainbow" coalition of all federal parties against the first referendum. His "victory" was the beginning of a long descent. By the mid 1980s, the "Progressive" Conservatives under Mulroney were elected with an important percentage of the Quebec vote. Francophones deserted en masse the Liberals indeed. Mulroney and his crooks governed until they had massacred what remained of Keynesian policies and stole everything they could for years. Their defeat in 1993 to Chretien's Liberals was as much the result of the division of the right (the Western-based ultra right splitting from the "PC" as to the return of the Liberals who remained a minority party in Quebec. After the second referendum (1995) that came close to precipitate a huge political crisis, Ottawa started to try buying people left, right and center in the manner that was later revealed by the Gomery Commission. There was a general repulsion in Quebec.

After the departure of Chretien, a sort of "civil war" erupted in the Liberal Party against the establishment led by Chretien and the inheritors of Trudeau, heavily supported by an opaque network of millionaires including Paul Desmarais. More populist politicians less obsessed with Quebec nationalism tried to shift the Party towards social and environment issues. But they were heavily defeated in the 2006 election. That defeat reflected the shift of the ultra right that had succeeded in their reunification under Stephen Harper. It did not change much of the political landscape in Quebec with the Bloc heavily ahead.

Since then, the "civil war" has continued within the Quebec Liberals. Ignatieff came as an outsider and was not welcomed by the traditional establishment. Many ridings have been the site of nasty battles about who would be the candidate. More importantly, none of the reforms that enlightened Liberals has though necessary came about clearly. Although Ignatieff toned down on the Quebec bashing rhetoric, the Liberals are still pursuing more or less the same policy of a "strong Canada". They now tailed Stephen Harper in its grotesque manipulations to appease Quebec nationalism ("Quebec is a nation") that are far away in any case of convincing the majority of Quebec voters. It is extraordinary to observe that the two Canadian "dominant" parties are indeed third and fourth way behind the Bloc and now behind the NDP!

So where is it going now? Harper will keep more or less his meagre 20% of public support and perhaps his 11 ridings, not because of his popularity, but because the opposition is split three ways. In west Montreal and Western Quebec, Liberals and the NDP are battling for the same voter, which could benefit, marginally, to the Conservative, but it's an equal-sum gave as far as debunking Harper. Everyone has noticed that Ignatieff is running on a center-left platform very similar than the NDP. His weak spot is that his party has ruled to do the exact opposite, slashing social, education and health budgets, consolidating the free trade agenda of the Canadian financial establishment and keeping close to the US. Some people have memory, so why would they vote for that?

In ridings that are in their majority francophones , the NDP will do better, but remaining a distant second. However, NPD votes will weaken the Bloc, which could allow, here and there, Conservatives and Liberals to win more seats.

Faced with a Conservative government (hopefully still minority), Liberals will start again with their internal "chicanes". Ignatieff will disappear without a fuss. The old establishment of the big business and anti Quebec nationalism tradition will not let go, especially if their favourite boy Martin Cauchon wins in Outremont against incumbent NDPer Thomas Mulcair. More likely they will retake control of the Liberals which could mean a smooth ride for Harper at least for some years to come. The ball will be in Stephen's hands to restructure the country along the desires of the "Toronto-Calgary" axis of power.

At least there will be a positive side: it will be huge fight!

 

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