Canada: André Pratte: Trudeau’s departure could cause problems for the Liberals in Quebec

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“Will Trudeau know when the moment is right for leaving?” was the title of the analysis authored by La Presse’s Bureau Chief on Parliament Hill. In a column published last Tuesday, Joël-Denis Bellavance, a well-informed reporter, speculated that the prime minister might use his vacation time in Costa Rica to reflect on his future. If, as some expect, Justin Trudeau decides not to run for a fourth mandate, his party’s prospects in Quebec could become bleaker.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts as he visits children at a day camp in Gatineau Park, Quebec, Canada, July 15, 2022. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle © Provided by National Post Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts as he visits children at a day camp in Gatineau Park, Quebec, Canada, July 15, 2022. REUTERS/Patrick Doyle

The latest numbers from the Abacus polling firm are disturbing for the Liberals. The Conservatives, who have been without a leader for months, lead the Grits by five points. Mr. Trudeau’s personal popularity is sagging; at 51 per cent negative impressions, the prime minister is in as bad a situation as during the SNC-Lavalin scandal two years ago. If such a situation persists, the pressure will be high on Mr. Trudeau to leave before he inflicts more damage to his party.

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Abacus’ data for the province of Quebec show that the Prime Minister is as unpopular in his home province than he is in other regions, save the Prairies, where anger towards Mr. Trudeau is especially profound and widespread. In Quebec, 30 per cent of respondents have a very negative impression of the Liberal leader, compared to only 11 per cent who hold a very positive view. Considering Quebecers’ habit of voting for the local guy, this is not a good score at all. Yet, if and when Mr. Trudeau resigns, he will leave a void in the province that his successor will have to work hard to fill.

Right now, federal voting intentions in Quebec put the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois tied for the lead, with approximately 30 per cent of voting intentions, followed by the Conservatives, with 21 per cent. Support for the Bloc is certainly not a vote for its separatist agenda. It is simply a space where Quebecers who are dissatisfied with the government of the day “park” their vote until there is a satisfactory alternative. With Mr. Trudeau leaving, there is a risk that the Bloc would gain even more support, as Quebecers find neither his successor nor the new Conservative leader to their liking. The “parking party” could even become the Official Opposition again (remember 1993).

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Although a few prestigious personalities are expected to try to replace the current leader, I see no one, presently, able to excite Quebec voters in the way that Justin Trudeau did in 2015. The popular Mélanie Joly and François-Philippe Champagne may very well run, but the party will likely not choose another Quebec, French-speaking leader at this time. This leaves, amongst the big names, Chrystia Freeland and Mark Carney.

Both are very strong candidates, but whether they succeed in charming Quebecers remains to be seen. Ms. Freeland, in particular, will have a hard time distancing herself from a government in which she played such a prominent role. Commentators here have been critical of the Liberals’ free-wheeling spending; the finance minister will hardly be credible if she promises to put the house in order.

Ms. Freeland’s and Mr. Carney’s French is passable and could easily be improved with a bit of practice. Still, Freeland or Carney will have a hard time against the Bloc’s leader, the clever litigator Yves-François Blanchette, in a televised French debate.

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What happens if Liberal support falls in Quebec? There is a strong enough conservative current in the province for the Conservatives to win a majority of seats here, which would make forming a majority government much easier. However, that depends on who the Conservatives choose as their next leader.

If, for one reason or the other, the Liberals and/or the Conservatives fail in proposing an attractive alternative to Quebecers, many will turn to the Bloc. They will “park” their vote there, until one of the national parties gets its act together.

The Bloc’s death has often been announced, only to see the separatist party rise from the ashes. Its survival is not good for Canadian democracy; in a federation like Canada, regional parties never are. Like citizens of all regions, Quebecers need to be at the table where decisions are made. This involves defending their interests, yes, but also making the crucial compromises that allow the country to move forward. By voting for the Bloc, Quebecers express their frustration towards the alternatives that are offered to them, but they also refuse to play the game; they choose to stay on the sidelines of the national government.

Justin Trudeau’s departure, when it happens, will impact all the pieces on Canada’s political chessboard, not least in Quebec. Here, national parties will again face the challenge of pulling away hundreds of thousands of Quebecers from the comfortable, isolationist Bloc vote. History shows that this is not an easy feat.

André Pratte is a principal at Navigator and a volunteer in Jean Charest’s team for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Canadians donated more than $44M to Liberal, Conservative parties in 2021 .
Audited financial statements filed with Elections Canada show that's just shy of $6 million more than the party raised in 2020, and the number of people who gave money to the Tories -- 95,000 -- was up by about 5,000 year-over-year.  Justin Trudeau's Liberals brought in $18.1 million from 75,800 donors, about $3 million more than in 2020. Both parties also took on large loans in 2021, with the Liberals borrowing $30 million from six lenders, and the Conservatives taking out a $29-million loan that was repaid in full early in 2022.

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