Underdog wins in Quebec – could it happen here?

Wayne Young
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With Island Tories still searching for a permanent leader and the governing Liberals riding high in the polls, it seems unlikely there will be any wholesale change after the next election.

Unlikely, but not impossible. Just ask Pauline Marois whose Parti Quebecois government – despite leading in public opinion polls at the outset of the campaign – was unceremoniously turfed this week by disgruntled voters in Quebec. The premier lost her own seat as the Liberals swept back into power just 18 months after the PQ formed a minority government.

Marois called the early election last month banking her lead in the polls and support for a controversial bill to regulate religious identity (known as the Charter of Quebec Values) would deliver the majority government she so desired.

It backfired.

The premier lost her job. Her charter is dead. The PQ is in shambles and its primary cause — taking Quebec out of Confederation — has been dealt a serious blow.

There’s nothing nearly as dramatic on the Island political scene — well, there is that $38.77 movie that George Webster may or not have watched on the taxpayers’ dime from his Texas motel room — but there may be lessons for both the governing Liberals and the parties vying to succeed them.

The Liberals have a substantial lead in the polls but even if they maintain it until the next election, Marois has shown a poorly run campaign can turn even the staunchest supporters away in the five weeks leading up to the vote.

Ghiz will have been in office for much longer than Marois but as he nears his second complete term, some are accusing his government of arrogance. The premier himself has been criticized for announcing an Olympic gold medalist would receive the Order of P.E.I., ignoring proper procedure and then promising to change legislation so he actually could make the move. No one disputes that Heather Moyse would be a most worthy recipient, but many feel the honour should not be the Ghiz’s to bestow.

The economy will and should be one of the ballot questions in the next election, still 18-24 months away. The Liberals say they’ll balance the budget in 2016 for the first time since they came to power in 2007 but even if they do, Islanders will still be saddled with a debt well over $2 billion. The Opposition rightly points out nearly half of that piled up on Ghiz’s watch but, in fairness, government budgeted for deficits as part of its stimulus spending for several years following the 2008 recession.

Still, Islanders are paying millions of dollars every year just to pay the interest on the burgeoning debt. That’s money not available for health care, education and primary industries.

In terms of lessons Opposition parties might take from the Quebec election, the Conservatives and NDP might well take heart from the Liberals’ come-from-behind victory, but they’ve both got a lot of work to do before they can seriously challenge for power.

If an election were held today, a Corporate Research poll released in March suggested the Liberals would draw about half the votes, while the NDP would attract 22 per cent and the Conservatives just 17.

The NDP, under leader Mike Redmond, has an uphill climb just to win a few seats in a province traditionally dominated by Grits and Tories. To that end leader Mike Redmond is working hard to raise the party’s profile, to organize in districts across the province and to build a war chest to mount an effective campaign.

Island Conservatives have the most ground to make up and they’re not going to do that with interim leader Steven Myers at the helm. He may be doing a credible job in the legislature but he’s still the face of a party that’s endured the kind of infighting and public squabbling that led to the ousting of its leader and to the defection of another member to the Liberals.

The Tories need to put that behind them if they have any hope of climbing back up the ladder. And any resurgence has to start with the announcement of a leadership convention, even if the next election isn’t until next year or later. If a search for candidates has identified anyone who wants to contest the job, now would be a good time for them to step forward and get the ball rolling. A new face with new ideas and a new direction for the party is what the Conservatives really need – the sooner the better.

Even if the stars align for the NDP and the Conservatives, they’re still likely to be underdogs in the next election. But Quebec’s Premier-elect Philippe Couillard would be the first to point out that underdogs can have bite. Pauline Marois found that out the hard way. Robert Ghiz should take note.

- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown

Organizations: Holland College, Parti Quebecois, Conservatives NDP Charter of Quebec Values

Geographic location: Quebec, Iceland, Texas Charlottetown

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