Electoral campaign in Québec: three parties, three elites

The elections in Québec are finally behind us. We know the results, the suspense is over. The point of this blog post is neither to weigh out its outcome or the degree of satisfaction or despair which its conclusion generates. It was however a very interesting campaign when one stops to think of the main parties’ views on the economy. This is not a matter of determining, as too many analysts do, whether the economy occupied enough space in the debates or to list the themes addressed, but rather to understand which economy was being discussed.

Great similarities obviously stand out in the campaigns led by the three main parties, i.e. the Parti québécois (PQ), the Liberal Party, and the Coalition avenir Québec (CAQ). At a glance, all three share the same views on economic development and wealth creation. As the president of the Québec Employers Council claimed last fall in an open letter, wealth creation must take precedence over wealth redistribution. This assertion, repeated ad nauseam, very aptly reflects the economic conception of the main parties.

For the PQ, the Liberals and CAQ, the economy exists independently from society and can thus impose its priorities on all the different social levels of existence. It’s in the name of economy that all three parties concur with one another to promote, for instance, the creation of new free-trade areas, increased state support for private investment, and accelerated exploitation of non-renewable resources. Liberal and neoliberal dogmas have inched their way into each party: the state is only to take charge of social issues if doing so brings economic payoff.

How can we explain, beyond this global homogeneity, the differences which subsist in the parties’ articulation of economic proposals? Why are the Liberals so desperate to support the financial sector and mining and energy industries? Why does the PQ favour strategically positioning the state as a driver of prosperity? And why does CAQ promote an economy of owners? Part of the answer can be found in the dividing lines amongst Québec’s elites as well as their political alignment.

The Liberals: the financial sector and international investments

Traditionally, the Liberals are considered to be bound up with the business sector in general, but more precisely the financial sector, which remains up to this day of mostly Anglo-Scottish heritage in Québec. One of the employers’ sectors most staunchly opposed to social policies has thus gone hand in hand with the political party which has governed Québec for the last nine years. This historical association has produced its share of disastrous results for the population of Québec.

The economic action of Charest’s three mandates is unambiguous. The government favoured the financial sector as soon as it had an opportunity to do so. Let’s go over a few examples. In 2007, Charest’s government announced it would progressively eliminate capital taxes on financial institutions. Under the pretext of taking control of public debt, it created in 2006 the Generations Fund (which is in fact nothing more than a hedge fund) and funded it by borrowing from financial institutions, thereby increasing public debt. It announced in 2011 a tuition fee hike, which only serves banks by enabling them to cash in even more on student debt. In its last budget, the Liberal government created Voluntary Retirement Savings Plans (VRSP), yet another way to hand over money to private fund managers.

The last campaign hasn’t been any different when it comes to Liberals’ proposals. The priorities of the defeated government were to open up Québec’s Greater North to big mining companies and to continue with development strategies based on its proximity with the financial sector.

PQ: technocratism and nationalism

Obviously, the PQ distinguishes itself from the Liberals with regards to both its position on the constitutional future of Québec and its historical origin. Many historians maintain that the PQ, at its inception, was the first political party of a popular nature in Québec history. “Popular” because of its huge number of supporters, but mainly because it succeeded in embodying the yearning for emancipation and social progress which drove a significant part of Québec’s population.

The PQ quickly strayed from this historical base to become a governing party. It nevertheless kept a solid footing in popular movements and still manages, often by co-option, to keep various leaders of the institutionalized left (unions, students, community groups) in its sphere of influence. In Québec’s political world, the PQ is the party which favours concerted action and grounds its social and economic programme’s fulfilment in the collaboration between a progressive state technocracy, a nationalist business class, and “sensible” representatives of social movements.

After a right-wing turn in the 90s, the last electoral campaign has seen a resurgence of the PQ’s techno-nationalist project, in peculiar on the issue of control over natural resource. The PQ shares most of the economic objectives of its opponents: sustained economic growth, wealth creation through investment stimulation, etc. However, it conceives of their actualization through an alliance between state and economic elites as opposed to the submission of the former to the latter, as is the case with the Liberals.

CAQ: regional elites

CAQ was born of a double divide and a union unheard of in Québec. The business sector in Québec is traditionally split in two: a class of nationalist entrepreneurs who submit themselves willy-nilly to massive state intervention in the economy and another class of entrepreneurs, most often staunchly federalist, who oppose all forms of state presence in the economy, fearing it could develop into an economic infrastructure able to turn the independence project into a reality.

Substantial parts of both groups have, since the 1995 referendum, dissociated themselves from their traditional political parties (PQ and Liberals). As a party, CAQ is the attempt to join these two sections of politically orphaned employers. Its appeal is especially potent in regions where entrepreneurs must either subscribe to the PQ’s model built around subsidies or depend, according to the Liberals’ view, upon an economy propelled by the financial markets thanks to the vitality of the metropolitan area or the unbridled exploitation of resources. CAQ offers an alternative to these two unsavoury prospects for small local entrepreneurs, albeit still a quite vague one, close to the defunct ADQ’s autonomism.

There cohabits therefore in this party elements that used to oppose one another. Fundamentally, it rallies small regional bourgeoisies, both because of the nationalist aspects of its discourse and its populistic anti-state and anti-social overtones. The right overtaking the PQ on the question of Québec’s status — something the left could not do because Québec progressives forces are already won over by the idea of independence — signals the appearance on the political scene of a party resembling the Liberals in all respects, though the past allegiances of its leader and of many of its members raise suspicion amongst high finance representatives.

The thin differences regarding economic thought between the parties in a position to govern rest upon the priorities they put forward. The combination of groups which compose their membership, but most importantly their leadership, dictates the priorities. To apprehend economic electoral campaigns, one must first reflect upon the economics of electoral campaigns. Indeed, those who organize party funding (through legal or illegal means, as we now know) become extremely relevant when it comes time to assess the uniformity in the economic thought distilled by the different parties.

Philippe Hurteau, is a researcher with IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank. 

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