For the first time since 1966, a provincial party other than the Liberals or Parti Québécois has won power in Quebec. And the new premier-elect and leader of the Coalition Avenir Québec, François Legault, wasted no time in announcing a move that will set a new tone. 

In a press conference on Tuesday, Legault said he will invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to impose a ban on wearing religious symbols and dress by anyone in a position of authority. The move would prevent public servants who interact with the public, which would include teachers, from wearing religious garments — from Muslim hijabs to Jewish kippas. He said he would amend the Quebec charter of rights to push the ban through.

The announcement comes less than 24 hours after the CAQ leader was swept to power, defying pollsters as he took a solid majority of seats — 74 out of 125, with about 38 per cent of the popular vote. The Liberals were not even close. They hung on to their core support, concentrated on island of Montreal and in Laval, just north of Montreal, and won enough seats — 32 — to form a respectable opposition. But in the popular vote, the Liberals were way lower than pollsters had forecast. They got about 25 per cent, about 13 points behind the CAQ. It was nowhere near the tied result pollsters had predicted.

Slash civil service; stigmatize immigrants

Right of centre politicians across the country — from Jason Kenney in Alberta, to Doug Ford in Ontario, who has also opted to invoke the notwithstanding clause to cut the size of Toronto city council — leapt to congratulate Legault on his win.

Indeed, in certain ways, Legault’s policies echo those of the right in the rest of Canada.

The newly-elected Quebec premier wants to radically cut the size of the public service. His party has promised to eliminate up to 230,000 public sector jobs through retirement and attrition.

Legault also wants to reduce ‘bureaucracy’ by doing away with elected school boards. And, echoing Ontario’s Ford, he has threatened to cut the number of elected officials in Montreal’s city government. 

Most notably, Legault’s party is diversity-and-immigrant-phobic. Here, the CAQ leader has considerable affinity with Maxime Bernier, who has launched his own right-of-centre federalist party; U.S. President Donald Trump; and European-style ethno-populism.

The newly-elected party wants to cut the number of immigrants to Quebec, at a time when economists point to a labour shortage in the province.

The party also takes a hard line on the wearing of head coverings or other religious symbols in public. And, not too long ago, Legault was threatening to expel immigrants who failed a test on ‘Quebec values’ and the French language. He had difficulty explaining that idea during the campaign, and made some effort to back away from it.

Supports the welfare state and carbon tax

In other respects, right-wingers in the rest of Canada might be disappointed if they think they have found a kindred spirit in the CAQ leader.

For instance, and this is a big one, the CAQ accepts the general Quebec consensus on climate change. Unlike Ontario’s Ford, Legault has no plans whatsoever to back out of the cap-and-trade carbon tax system Quebec now shares with California.

And unlike leaders of the right in the rest of Canada, Legault does not promise to shrink the welfare state. In fact, in his victory speech, he did not engage in the usual right-of-centre rhetoric about lowering taxes and reducing the role of the state. Instead, Legault made a point of reaffirming his and his party’s commitments to Quebec’s elderly and to its families.

The CAQ has promised a major investment to upgrade Quebec’s flawed system for housing and providing services to its older citizens. Notably, this will involve building new homes for the elderly to replace the current long-term care facilities, at a huge cost. One of Legault’s victorious star candidates, former Liberal cabinet minister Marguerite Blais, championed increased investment in services to the elderly. At the CAQ’s victory celebration cameras caught Legault embracing Blais before he vigorously promised to follow through on his commitments to senior citizens.

The CAQ has also promised to increase Quebec’s baby bonus and improve its universal child-care system. It will free much-in-demand daycare spaces by introducing public pre-kindergarten classes, starting at the age of four, and it has pledged to roll back the increases in daycare fees imposed by outgoing premier Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government.

Enhancing services in that way will involve expanding not shrinking the role of the state – which is what the right elsewhere in Canada wants to do.

And so, Legault is no Doug Ford. Notwithstanding the tough and scary talk on immigration, he is not another notionally anti-politician populist, spouting vague nostrums about the little guy.

Legault is, in fact, a seasoned politician. After a successful career in business, where he founded the charter airline, Air Transat — Legault held a number of senior positions in the Parti Québécois governments of Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry during the late 1990s and early 2000s, including heading up the ministries of education, industry and health.

When Legault and a core group, which included both erstwhile separatists and federalists, founded the CAQ in 2011, their avowed purpose was to move away from the stultifying, binary, separatist-federalist choice that had dominated politics in Quebec for nearly five decades. In his victory speech, Legault alluded to that goal. He said his challenge now was to prove that those who had been yesterday’s adversaries could now work together.

Yet another ironclad promise to change the electoral system

Even though his party won a large majority of seats, Legault made a point of saying he wants to govern collaboratively with the other parties, seemingly aware his party’s popular vote score does not come close to matching its seat count.

Indeed, one of Legault’s most notable campaign pledges was to reform the Quebec electoral system so that it better reflects the will of the people. He has promised to replace first-past-the-post with a version of the German mixed member proportional system.

There are now 125 members of the Quebec National Assembly, elected by first-past-the-post system. Legault’s reform would see 75 such first-past-the-post members, while the remaining 50 would be chosen by a proportional vote based on party lists.

Justin Trudeau famously promised that the 2015 election would be the last fought under first-past-the-post, and then brazenly reneged on that promise.

During the campaign, Legault insisted that, unlike Trudeau, he would proceed to implement reform in the first year of his mandate. He even went so far as to say he would do this without a referendum. A mandate from the people is sufficient, Legault said, to change the electoral system

Another notable outcome of Monday’s vote was the worst popular vote showing ever for the PQ, which translated into winning a mere nine seats.

Québec Solidaire, on the other hand, feels the wind in its sails. It doubled its popular vote and more than tripled its seat count, from three to 10. The environmental-feminist-socialist party is now dominant in east end Montreal and has gained footholds in the Eastern Townships, northwestern Quebec and the Quebec City area.

The co-leaders of Québec Solidaire will do their best to make sure Legault does not, somehow, forget about his ironclad pledge on electoral reform — as they will, no doubt, vociferously and frequently remind the new premier of the significant promises he made to Quebec’s seniors and children.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo credit: François Legault’s offical page/Facebook 

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...