Fear and Loathing on the Quebec campaign trail

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By: Sandy White

Photo: archives

If it is inspiration you seek, look elsewhere.

Quebec is currently resting on a precipice, preparing to crumble into an economic basket case and a social and political calamity. Its debt is the highest in Canada and among the highest in the developed world. Its health and education systems are in disrepair. A chronic lack of productivity has stifled Its economic growth. Endemic corruption has tarnished the business and political landscape of the province, and relations with the rest of Canada are nearing an all-time low.

Almost any memory of Quebec’s once dominant place in Confederation has been erased by decades of cronyism, economic failure and political disaster.

Nearly two weeks into one of the most important provincial election campaigns in Quebec’s history, the landscape is seemingly devoid of purpose as its leaders appear content to engage in the trivial pandering and money politics of political Lilliputians. While some have touched on the themes of corruption, economic mismanagement, and the dilapidated welfare state, the debate has reverted to the same tawdry approach that voters so revile.

Yet more than almost any election in recent memory, the political leaders have been presented with an opportunity to engage with Quebecers on the critical issues that have unleashed a malaise in the province unseen in years. The political and societal upheaval that sprung from the student unrest in the past several months offered Quebecers their first opportunity in almost half a century to move beyond the question of sovereignty, and address the real problems which plague our province.

For many Quebecers, 2012 has been a year of political awakening, as the ubiquitous student protests unveiled a number of major divisions within Quebec society. While many commentators have already drawn the battle lines in this fight as being generational, the divisions are, in fact, far more ideological. In a province that has been held hostage for decades by the sovereignty debate, the chance to move beyond this was a welcome, if messy, development.

Quebecers are currently yearning for change from a government that is increasingly viewed as corrupt, tired and out of touch. But that no party has been able to harness this sentiment and use it to its advantage is indicative of the quality of leaders that are facing off against each other in this campaign. For the governing Liberals, a splintered and tepid opposition is perhaps their only saving grace.

The fact that no party has been able to harness this sentiment of frustration and use it to its advantage is indicative of the quality of leaders that are facing off against each other in this campaign.

With his back against the wall as his government is slowly consumed by scandal, Premier Jean Charest has dug deep into his diminishing arsenal and unleashed the ever reliable political Kalashnikov of the threat of another referendum following a Parti Quebecois victory in order to herd voters back into his camp. Charest’s fear mongering escalated last week as he has warned that even a vote for the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Quebec is the equivalent of a pro-sovereignty vote, claiming that the Liberals are the only party that can defend federalist Quebecers’ interests.

For its part, the Parti Quebecois, which for the majority of the student crisis stood firmly behind the rioting masses in the streets, has opportunistically stated that they would scrap the Liberal government’s proposed tuition fee increase which was the spark that ignited this conflict. However, this act of political amnesia (the PQ has previously been for a tuition increase) could not be a more cynical play to gain the votes of disaffected Quebecers who are fed up with the Liberal government. The sad part is that it is likely to work.

To a large extent, the fury exhibited by the thousands who have protested in the streets this past year was the result of a large swath of the province finally recognizing and acknowledging the mockery Quebec has become. It is hardly any wonder that current circumstances have produced a legion of citizens who seek to upend the province’s current order in the hopes that their increasingly bleak prospects might somehow improve. However, the state-sponsored solutions those in the streets and on the political left propose to address Quebec’s many ailments are more likely to kill the patient rather than revive her.

Although one thing is all but certain: regardless of the outcome of this election, the unrest and the frustration among Quebecers is by no means expected to subside until Quebec’s economic and political prospects improve.

Sandy White is a former advisor to Conservative Member of Parliament Christian Paradis and is currently studying law at Laval University in Quebec City.

Organizations: Parti Quebecois, Quebec society, Laval University

Geographic location: Quebec City, Canada, Confederation

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