The Leader of the Official Opposition has made much of his electoral prospects in Quebec. True, he speaks French; true, he also proposes a degree of provincial autonomy that might appeal to many Quebeckers. It is even true that Stockwell Day won a substantial number of votes from Quebec for his party leadership, and that some former supporters of the Bloc Québécois have joined his Canadian Alliance. But the idea that any of this will translate into large numbers of popular votes, or that the Bloc and Alliance could form some kind of partnership, reveals a deep misunderstanding of Quebec.
Why would Quebeckers be attracted to the Alliance? The answer usually given is the Alliance's expressed policy to respect the federal division of powers and to let the provinces assume full responsibility in the fields of culture, language, education, health, communications, and the like. This could appeal to Quebeckers, nationalists and autonomists alike. But would this be enough to create a movement in favour of the Alliance? Not at all.
In a province dominated by progressive forces favouring a form of social democracy, the Alliance has an image problem: It is too right wing. This is particularly true with respect to its positions on gun registration, abortion, immigration policy, Quebec's right to self-determination, a flat-rate income tax and, more generally, its opposition to a role for the state in wealth redistribution.
The fact that the party has recruited a few right-leaning politicians such as Nic Leblanc (a defeated Bloc candidate), Richard Bélisle (defeated Bloc candidate), and may draw such people as Jean Allaire (the party strategist of the Action Démocratique du Québec), Gérard Latulipe (a former Liberal MNA) and Rodrigue Biron (former lerader of the Union Nationale), confirms how wide is the ideological gap between the Alliance and the overall Quebec population. This spells trouble for the Alliance in Quebec.
Those recruits are not without political significance if they can help bring about a realignment of political forces in Quebec. It is my view that they cannot. In fact, it is the Bloc that stands to gain the most by the Alliance's entry.
Since the federal elections of 1993 and 1997, we have gradually seen the Liberals moving toward the centre-right of the political spectrum. Their strategy was to present themselves as a true party of the centre and to attenuate the differences on economic and fiscal policies between themselves and their main challenger, the Reform Party. As a result, Chrétien Liberals launched a series of initiatives to reduce social benefits, to impose a Canadian Health and Social Transfer on the provinces, to decrease the federal deficit and the debt, and to improve their standing with the business community. This made the Chrétien Liberals unwelcome in Atlantic Canada and francophone Quebec. Having estranged themselves from their bases of support in Eastern Canada, they are now competing with the Alliance for the median voters in Ontario.
The very limited inroad that the Alliance might make in Quebec can only be at the expense of the federal Liberals, since Stockwell Day's appeal is limited to right-wing voters who would otherwise have leaned toward the Liberals. Considering the number of tight races in the last election, any growth in Alliance support in Quebec should produce seat gains for the Bloc at the expense of the Liberals and the total oblivion of the Conservatives. The Liberals recognize this threat; hence their recent wooing of two Conservative MPs.
There is a popular view in English Canada that the Quebec electorate is unpredictable. As examples, people point to the sudden emergence of Réal Caouette's Créditistes in 1962, the swing to Brian Mulroney's Conservatives in 1984 and 1988, and the success of the upstart Bloc in 1993 and 1997. Actually, Quebeckers' political attitudes are quite stable. These apparent fluctuations reflect their constitutional and policy preferences.
When Pierre Trudeau's Liberals pushed for the patriation of the Constitution against the political will of provincial leaders (René Lévesque, Claude Ryan etc.), it was Mr. Mulroney's Conservatives, with the backing of provincial Liberals and Péquistes, that subsequently swept the province. When Mr. Mulroney proved incapable of delivering Meech Lake's distinct society, it was the Bloc that emerged as a champion of francophone Quebec. Hidden within those dramatic shifts in Quebeckers' partisanship is an element of continuity that should not be overlooked by analysts. The dynamics of party competition continue to evolve in Quebec, but the salient issues remain the same.
Considering the consistently held positions taken by the leadership of the Reform/Alliance that refuses to acknowledge Quebec's status as a distinct society, while raising questions about the status of French as an official language, it is easy to predict that its chances of success in the province are minimal. In addition, considering the neo-liberal stance adopted by the Alliance on questions of social and economic policies, it is also clear that the party is going to compete with the Liberals rather than the Bloc, whose supporters tend to be markedly on the left of the political spectrum. These competitive dynamics should improve the Bloc's performance in the next federal election.
All this also means that a coalition between the Alliance and the Bloc is inconceivable. Indeed, it would be suicidal for these parties to admit to such an arrangement before the votes are counted; they reflect opposing ends of the ideological spectrum. Still, they both advocate provincial autonomy, a key pillar of Quebec political culture. And they represent distinct regions that have often been neglected and alienated by Ottawa. As such, they may find much in common in Ottawa, but not in the voting booth. Alain Gagnon, a professor of political science, is director of Québec Studies at McGill University. He is co-author of Ties that Bind: Parties and Voters in Canada .