Until recent years, Quebec was proudly social democratic. In the 1970s and 1980s, two former Liberal premiers, Robert Bourassa and Claude Ryan, as well as Parti Québecois founder René Lévesque and his all-powerful finance minister Jacques Parizeau, claimed the same left of centre lineage. Both parties built, and defended, an industrial policy funded by state pensions, and promoted low university tuition, and social insurance schemes — eventually including a public childcare system unique to North America.

That changed when Lucien Bouchard took over the premiership from Parizeau and sought province-wide support for a deficit zero austerity program. But, Quebec did not get a Mike Harris, Ralph Klein or Gordon Campbell neo-liberal shakedown. Liberal Premier Jean Charest would have liked to do it, but he backed down when faced with organized opposition by supporters of the Quebec social model.

The surprising thing about the current Quebec election is that we are in the middle of a campaign where the main themes look as though they came straight from a U.S. election battle between the reds (Republicans) and the blues (Democrats). There is not a social democratic idea in the debate among the main contenders.

The sexual orientation of PQ leader, André Boisclair, and its presumed negative impact on voting choices by industrial workers in the Saguenay region was raised by a radio host, and it sparked a follow-up debate.

Mario Dumont of the ADQ has made what is called “reasonable accommodation” to immigrant culture practices an election issue, and it has taken off. One of his ADQ candidates attacked pay equity and the observance of the December 6 anniversary of the Montreal massacre to protest violence against women.

What keeps this from being a red versus blue debate is that so far no one has come out against abortion rights.

Debating issues of women’s rights, tolerance and homosexuality is not something to fear. But, in campaign 2007, the questions of industrial policy, and extension of the Quebec social model have been pushed aside in the rush to Americanize Quebec election coverage. The media is surely hoping for one of the candidates to arrive in rehab with a shaved head.

Charest opened the campaign with a confident swing at the sovereigntist PQ, knowing that while 48 per cent of Quebecers say they favour the option, two-thirds oppose a third referendum now. Boisclair rose to defend his option of a referendum following a PQ victory; his supporters will accept nothing less. So, as the two sparred over the traditional national question, Mario Dumont gathered strength with his family values, red agenda.

Now Charest has turned his attention to Dumont. But how can he confront him, since the two leaders are pushing much of the same right-wing agenda? Dumont says he seeks autonomy for Quebec, but within Canada, so Charest tries to aim his anti-sovereignty guns at the ADQ as well as the PQ.

By painting himself as the champion of Canada he limits his ability to address issues that have made him unpopular: the health care crisis, the slow economic growth rate, and his neglect of the poor and disadvantaged.

Rather than take advantage of the shortcomings of the Liberals, the story of the PQ campaign to date is that support for the party has dipped below 30 per cent for the first time since 1970. Boisclair attracts the blame. His leadership agenda, other than what he now calls a public consultation on sovereignty, remains obscure. He has defended the deficit zero legacy of his party under Bouchard. This move to the right is promising for the fortunes of the socially minded Québec Solidaire, which like the Quebec Greens, has been polling around five per cent.

With just under three weeks to go before the election on March 26, it is too soon to write off Boisclair, his party, or the sovereigntist option. Quebec nationalism has been built on 400 years of history, and is not going away.

What is worrisome is that two left of centre parties have moved, so that the three main contenders are now right of centre.

European social democracy has moved rightwards as well. The Canadian political agenda has been pulled right since the great recession of 1982.

But it now appears that Quebec, the best placed of all the provinces to resist the impact of American integration on Canada, is having its political culture re-made. Liberals become Tory blue Grits, and instead of socialist red, we see American Republican red. Quebecers lose in this scenario, but so do Canadians who have benefited from the progressive examples available for citation in Quebec political life.

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...