Another War of Jenkins' Ear

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Posts Tagged ‘Charlottetown Accord

Is the Bloc Québécois About To Fall?

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Via Matt Yglesias, stunning news from North America’s frigid third:

Jack Layton is riding high after a pair of polls show the NDP overtaking the Bloc Québécois – a change that would mark a huge transformation of the political landscape if it carried through to election day and was transformed into seats in the House of Commons.

CROP survey published Thursday in the Montreal newspaper La Presse suggests the NDP is the preferred choice for 36 per cent of Quebeckers, compared to 31 per cent for the Bloc. The Tories were at 17 per cent in that poll and the Liberals were at 13 per cent.

And an EKOS Research surveyconducted for the internet news outlet iPolitics suggests that the New Democrats have jumped 10 percentage points since just before last weeks’ leaders debates to 31.1 per cent while the Bloc has dropped to 23.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, a Nanos Research pollconducted for The Globe and Mail suggests that Mr. Layton’s New Democrats are closing in on the Liberals for second place in popular support across the country.

It wasn’t inevitable that this was going to happen now, but this was inevitable sooner or later. The Bloc is in essence a vanity party: a vote for them and secession means that you as a voter literally do not care about any other issue, just secession. And given the past 5 years globally, as well as continuous effects of a conservative governing coalition, at some point it was bound to happen that  people would vote their economic and social interests over a pure protest vote.

As I noted in my previous, lengthy post, Quebec at one point was the heart of the left in Canada. These polls indicate it might be happening again. The NDP is really center left (the liberals are left) but this literally could change everything: if the Bloc loses, then the NDP could have a governing coalition like the left used to.

What makes this really interesting, of course, is that it was the Bloc siding against Harper’s government in a no confidence vote that made this election possible.

What’s the Deal With The Bloc Québécois?

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This week, the Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party Canadian government was voted down on a no confidence vote, and there will be an election in May. This is a good summary of the timeline that led to this specific event happening.

I was going to write a post on why Canada seems to have doomed itself to minority governments, but most of what I wanted to discuss kept coming back to the great “enigma” of Canadian politics: the rise of the Bloc Québécois over the past 20 years as a political force that has no interest in governing and is too toxic to be part of any coalition. I’m also roughly interested in the antipathy of Liberals from making a coalition with the farther left party, the New Democrat Party, but that seems like typical center-left and left squabbling that we see here in America on a daily basis. So I’ll leave that for others (eg: Canadian-balloon-juice.com).

Quebec in Blocks

I. Background

The Bloc Québécois has been accused of being on the right, on the left, and able to work with both sides. But the Bloc was only founded 20 years ago – and the Canadian Constitution Act was less than 30 years ago. Quebec did not ratify that Constitution, the only province not to do so; but the Canadian Supreme Court held Quebec was still bound by it. The previous Constitutional arrangement had allowed limited guaranteed bilingualism, but the roots of the nationalism are different: in Quebec, there is no extensive history of national Canadian institutions that we take for granted here in the states or even in elsewhere in Canada. In the 1960s, the sovereignty movement began to gain steam, but this had been simmering under the surface for quite a while.

There have been two major attempts since 1982 to remedy the Quebec issue constitutionally, both of which failed: the Meech Lake Accord in 1987 and the Charlottetown Accord of 1992. Arguably, both failed because the split within Canadian society on the proper role of Quebec was irresolvable; in fact the Charlotteown Accord was opposed both by Quebec politicians who wanted nothing short of independence and by westerners who did not want Quebec to be recognized as a “distinct society” within Canada.

The Bloc Québécois had not existed prior to then. This was in part because Rene Levesque, the founder of the political party that would become Parti Québécois, did not favor running pro-sovereigntists in national elections.  (Parti Québécois is a Quebec level sovereignty party that is technically separate from Bloc Québécois). One notable exception to this general rule, Roch La Salle, was an independent, but willing to be a member of government – something the Bloc refuses to do.

The Bloc Québécois first ran in national elections in 1993. They only run candidates in Quebec, and have run for 75 seats in Quebec in every national election since then. This is a chart of their seats won and percentage of the popular vote in Canada and Quebec in elections since their inception:

Election Seats won % of popular vote (Canada) % of popular vote (Quebec)
1993 54 13.5% 49.3%
1997 44 10.7% 37.9%
2000 38 10.7% 39.9%
2004 54 12.4% 48.9%
2006 51 10.5% 42.1%
2008 49 10.0% 38.1%

There are four last events to review. In 1995, a Quebec referendum narrowly rejected negotiating independence, by 50.6% to 49.4%. A separatist leader blamed it on “money and the ethnic vote” but indigenous and English speaking populations are part of Quebec with the right to vote. In 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada held that there was no unilateral right to secede, but if a province expressed a “clear will” to secede, the government would have to enter negotiations. And then in 1999, the government passed the Clarity Act, establishing what that clear will would have to be: essentially some sort of supermajority, the question of which was approved prior to the referendum by Parliament; the negotiations also would have to include all provinces and indigenous groups. Additionally, the House of Commons could overrule any such vote if they feel the result was not clear.

This has made secession such a high bar that practically speaking it is impossible – there are too many English and other enclaves within Quebec for that bar to be cleared.

Lastly, in 2006, Stephen Harper introduced a resolution on the matter to declare Quebec “a nation within a united Canada”:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had introduced the surprise motion on Nov. 22, raising the ante on a Bloc Québécois motion that sought to declare Quebecers a nation without reference to Canada. The motion states: “That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.” The prime minister has said he is using the word nation in a “cultural-sociological” rather than in a legal sense. “I think tonight was an historic night,” Harper said after the vote. “Canadians across the country said ‘yes’ to Quebec, ‘yes’ to Quebecers, and Quebecers said ‘yes’ to Canada.”In politics you take risks — that’s what we did — but national unity, national reconciliation are more important than any one party or than any one individual.”

But why is the Bloc still around? It was not intended to be a permanent party – it was meant to be a temporary party. The current leader of the Bloc, Gilles Duceppe, has given a justification that sounds rather weak – in this 2010 speech he takes it as a given that since Quebec has been declared a nation that it ipso facto should be independent, nothing a few policy disagreements with the Canadian government, but really, not nearly much at all.

In the party’s early days, Mr. Bouchard had worried that the separatist contingent in Ottawa could become a sort of “insurance policy” for skittish Quebecers: They could safely cast a vote for a sovereigntist party without any danger of it actually leading to a referendum.

Mr. Duceppe said that has not occurred, and in fact the House of Commons has become a training ground for the future leaders of an independent Quebec. “I have learned in Ottawa what it means to have a country,” he said. “When the word Canada is mentioned, all MPs from all the Canadian parties, left, right, NDP, Reform, Tories, Liberals, they all rise together. And I admire that. That is strength.” On a more concrete level, Quebec politicians have gained experience in fields not present in the provincial legislature. “Quebec experience in foreign affairs is very limited. It happens in Ottawa,” he said. “Defence happens in Ottawa. We are learning things, for sure.”

Duceppe seems to be lowering the bar for success, saying politics can change on a dime and that the Bloc is not monsters:

Mr. Duceppe is more optimistic, taking comfort from the fact that the political winds can shift suddenly. “I think the need [for sovereignty] is greater now than in 1990,” he said. When he entered politics and became the first person elected under the Bloc banner, there was still a move to have Quebec sign the Constitution. The Charlottetown accord, opposed as insufficient by the Bloc, was defeated in a 1992 referendum. Now, Mr. Duceppe said, the only options for Quebecers are the status quo or separation. “Federalists tell us there is no longer a project for renewal. The fruit is not ripe, the land is not fertile. It’s impossible to change the Canadian Constitution. That is clear. Take it or leave it.”

His lengthy presence on the federal scene, with his strong performances in English-language leaders’ debates, have earned him the grudging respect of many in the rest of Canada. When he is on holiday outside the country, he said, he is often approached by English-Canadians asking to be photographed with him. “I am proud that in the rest of Canada we have shown that sovereigntists are not crazies, not extremists,” he said. “We don’t eat babies for breakfast.”

This is all well and good, but it’s not very persuasive. In this speech he conceded the current alignment just entrenches the Conservative Party in power, but in a minority government.

II: Implications

So what we’re left with is that the Bloc Québécois isn’t a majority party even in Quebec – they just split the vote between liberals and conservatives and are a plurality group themselves with majority representation.  And even by their own words, most of what they disagree with from Canada is policy oriented (it’s certainly no more a disconnect than indigenous groups), and that they are their own nation.

This assessment gives three main reasons for Quebec independence: that economic development within Canada is unequal, that Canada does not consider itself a multinational state, and that Quebec cannot chose its legal status. The first can be remedied through existing political processes. The second could arguably be remedied by the 2006 resolution. By the latter, it is meant that Quebec alone cannot amend or negotiate to its satisfaction the legal process. But they still cannot generate a sufficient popular support to even govern Quebec at the provincial level, and yet they refuse to negotiate or compromise on their demands. And there’s no way they can be part of a coalition – they want to secede. That’s toxic for either party.

There are 308 seats in the House of Commons in Canada. If you give the Bloc 37 seats (one less than their lowest number ever) it mean that any other party would need to win 155 seats out of 271 to have a majority – and that’s a robust 57%. The Conservatives are the only party with enough appeal to approach that number, but in order to do so need to win districts that are extreme long shots. There’s a sort of resignation within this article of Stephen Harper making that sort of appeal.

So the residual (but not overly wide even within Quebec) desire for independence is inevitably going to lead to chronic government instability.

On the other hand, this sort of vanity project – committing an entire region to not being part of government – is going to be less and less important the more important national deliberations become. It’s at the point where demands of the Bloc are ignored because the Bloc demands them, even if Quebec federalists agree with them on the matter.

In essence, the Bloc has had just enough success to stay in existence and make all of Canadian politics completely fragile, but just enough failure to make this a Don Quixote type exercise for them. In this day and age issues are increasingly global, not local. Anne-Marie Slaughter has done some impressive research on this. The key decisions being made regarding the financial crisis are probably at the Basel Convention. Quebec trying to insulate itself and sacrificing political capital to do so is political madness.

There are defenses of the Bloc’s existence, but they tend to be that the Bloc is still relatively popular – and they are! But there’s no clear path to achieving their goals. Indeed, as time goes on, they’ve lost power and decisions. Even if they achieve another referendum, the House of Commons has complete control over what is on the referendum and what to do afterwards; and there’s still not nearly enough support in Quebec to get the supermajority of support that would be necessary to trigger negotiations.

And so Canada is left with an unstable system; Quebec is left with negotiating completely from weakness, since their representatives are toxic; it is meant to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the end, I don’t see this stalemate changing unless there is an abrubt change in circumstances; if it was not brought on by the financial crisis, it’s hard to say what would bring it on. But there’s two forces pushing towards a stalemate: the Bloc reduces Quebec’s power, increasing marginally desire for independence; on the other side, integration leads towards acceptance. (As well as blaming the Bloc for being relatively powerless.).

In short, I feel for my Canadian friends. They’re sort of doomed to political instability.

III. Broader Context

But the bright side for my Canadian friends is that Quebec can do this because the stakes are so low. If Stephen Harper ran Canada off the rails like George W. Bush did America, I doubt that the Bloc would get as many votes as they do in the present. Voting for Quebec sovereignty is important for a plurality of people in the province, but they also have single-payer health care, gay marriage and a reasonable foreign policy all things considered:things Americans mostly dream of. So the left can let Harper fool around – if he tries to take away anything they consider core to their existence, they can vote otherwise.

So we’re left with two political standards: achievements and stability. American is remarkably stable but achieving even small things is deathly difficult. Canada has little political stability but a great many political achievements.  (If anyone in Canada wants to dispute this, name a policy problem in Canada that the government could solve that is not worse in America. That can’t be a long list.)

I’m not going to trade my citizenship, but I do have a little Canadian envy of that.

That is, red with envy; not blue.

Image from here, used under a Creative Commons License.