Never before, to my recollection, has an election in Quebec been so uninspiring.
For months now, poll results have predicted a win for the right-of-centre Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), and with four weeks remaining, Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at voters in their quest for one more chance to govern.
By all accounts, it should be an interesting campaign, yet the promises — from all parties, not just the Liberals — are so milquetoast, nearly 40 per cent of Quebecers remain undecided about who to vote for on Oct. 1, according to a recent survey of more than 1,000 residents conducted by Léger, Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette.
It's a level of innovation clearly reflected in the campaign slogans, which are about as exciting to me as my annual Pap test:
The Liberals: "Pour faciliter la vie des Québécois” (to make life easier for Quebecers)
The Parti Quebecois: “Serieusement" (Seriously)
The CAQ: "Maintenant" (Now)
Quebec Solidaire: "Populaires" (Popular)
Perhaps party strategists are as bored and unmotivated by this election as voters are, because I refuse to believe anyone produced these nondescript slogans after calculated brainstorming. The PQ slogan gets me the most — seriously what? We're seriously in a position to lose official party status? We seriously need to do a better job of vetting our candidates so we don't spend the better part of our campaign apologizing for their racist remarks?
Sure, a few attractive, albeit unoriginal campaign promises are floating around, but they're mostly coming from Quebec Solidaire, the party that has nothing to lose, trailing hopelessly in the polls.
Since the latest Léger results, however, reveal that Couillard's Liberals are closing the gap on the CAQ, let's take a look at the pledges that be.
Sondage Léger/Le Devoir/The Gazette:— Philippe J. Fournier (@338Canada) August 29, 2018
La CAQ toujours en avance, mais l'écart se resserre. pic.twitter.com/MKIlUAZo21
Barrette thrown under the bus
According to a recent Vote Compass survey of 50,000 Quebecers, health is the issue voters care about the most.
Painfully aware of his ambivalent track record in that department, last week, Couillard offered up Health Minister Gaétan Barrette as the party's sacrificial lamb. If re-elected, he promised Barrette would not return to the health desk, following public outcry over cutbacks and austerity measures that have weakened confidence in the provincial health system.
The party has also pledged to allow pharmacists to administer vaccines, create 25 new super clinics, and provide a second medicare card for children under 14 years of age, allowing each parent to each have one. The latter would certainly improve access to health care and decrease parent stress, but none of these promises are ground-breaking or fundamental changes that would alter the current status quo that much. In many ways, they're just Band-Aid solutions, hoping to offer some minor relief to users of a system that is still in dire need of improvements.
Finally, the Liberals have promised free daycare for four-year-olds (eliminating the subsidized cost of $7.55 per child, per day), and intensive English classes in Grades 5 and 6 at French elementary schools upon request. As it stands, only two per cent of Grade 5 children and 17 per cent of Grade 6 students receive intensive English classes.
These are interesting promises that many Quebecers should be happy with, as they would decrease childcare expenses for parents and increase the probability of early bilingualism for their children.
Oh yeah, the Liberals also tried, and failed, to match an improved dental care promise made by Quebec Solidaire (QS) last spring.
Québec Solidaire focuses on the environment
With no shot at governing whatsoever, QS has made lofty offers — led by its two spokespeople, Manon Massé and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, the party has vowed to offer free education from daycare to PhD level, slash transit fares in half, and ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2030.
While the last two proposals have drawn praise from environmental groups, Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-François Lisée called them “too radical,” and Couillard called them “punitive,” believing such measures would create demand for electric vehicles that would far outstrip supply (as if that’s a bad thing).
These QS promises aren't necessarily innovative (although certainly a step in the right direction), but my criticism here is for the politicians who treat sound and progressive environmental solutions as nuisances that impede existing ways of doing business.
With Vote Compass results revealing that the environment is the top concern of young voters (probably because they're the most likely to be here when the Earth burns up), politicians should start treating climate action as a legitimate concern and not an exaggerated gripe of tree-hugging hipsters.
On the health front, QS has also pledged to introduce universal dental care insurance. It turns out that last idea was so interesting, the Liberals decided to somewhat copy it and revive parts of an old promise made by former Liberal leader Jean Charest.
Couillard has now vowed to expand free dental care to include children up to 16 years old, in addition to low-income seniors — a plan that would qualify an additional 1.2 million Quebecers for coverage, he said. What stopped the Liberals from introducing this coverage for the past 15 years they have pretty much been in power?
It’s a rhetorical question, you don’t have to answer it.
CAQ a mix of austerity measures and identity talk
The CAQ, meantime, continues prioritize the protection of Quebec’s identity, spouting the same tired, vote-pandering lines about immigrants somehow being a threat to Quebec and the French language. Despite pleas for more immigrants to ease the province's need for additional labour, party leader François Legault continues to champion less immigration, and having more children, as a move that will “effectively be good for protecting our identity.”
To that end, he has proposed an additional $1,200 per child annually for families with more than one child as a kind of incentive — a laughable proposal if you ask me. Even with my sub-par math skills, it's clear that such baby bonuses won't be enough to tackle the province’s severe lack of qualified personnel, given how much it costs to raise a child.
We need immigration, despite Legault’s insinuations that it will forever alter the face of Quebec.
The CAQ has also pledged to open four new entrepreneurship schools and fund student bursaries (good ideas, in my opinion), but is also vowing to cut one per cent of of the province's public servants, and slashing $1.2 billion in spending during the first term alone. If people are tired of Liberal austerity, they may want to give that last promise a little thought.
But I don't blame Legault for these ill-planned ideas — after all, he has been distracted by recent scandals involving two of his own candidates. One week into the campaign, CAQ party president and candidate Stephane Le Bouyonnec resigned when it was revealed that once led an online, Ontario-based firm called Techbanx, which profits from offering high-interest loans.
Éric Caire, the CAQ MNA for La Peltrie in Quebec City, was also put in the hot seat after confirming that he accepted a personal, $55,000-loan last year from a city mayor during his separation from his spouse so he could purchase a home. The ethics commissioner concluded it inappropriate, but since Caire paid the money back in June, he remains in the race.
Some good, some bad from the PQ
The Parti Quebecois (PQ) is offering voters more of a mixed bag. Lisée is proposing two additional weeks of parental leave (never a bad thing) and has vouched for developing a Tinder-like app for carpooling, which I think is a great idea if there’s a way for safety issues to be tackled first.
They've also promised free school supplies to elementary and secondary school students, to cap book discounts to protect small bookstores, and allow people to grow two marijuana plants at home.
While I absolutely love the PQ's idea of a "cultural passport" that would give young students a $50-credit to spend at cultural organizations, businesses and events (and hopefully, inspire a love for Quebec culture), I'm less enamoured with Lisée's pledge to finance Robert Lepage's Kanata, if elected. It remind me that a large swath of Quebecers, including those aspiring to govern, continue to be unable or unwilling to understand how cultural appropriation is both damaging and insulting to minority communities.
For those of you who don't remember, in July, the Montreal Jazz Festival cancelled Quebec producer Lepage's SLAV, a predominantly white production of slave songs, after major public backlash. Barely a month later, Kanata, another one of his productions about the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities with absolutely no Indigenous input, was also cancelled amid accusations of insensitivity and cultural appropriation.
Great posters, boring slogans
While I’m aware that almost no one votes based on election posters (at least I hope not), Quebec Solidaire seems to have scored a big win (if social media is any indication) with its beautifully inclusive, creative, colourful posters, which give Quebecers a nice break from the impossibly boring and painfully trite campaign posters that are so often defaced on every street pole.
québec solidaire has some 🔥 posters by local artists for this election pic.twitter.com/aLOVWpIZbO— Lazlo (@lazlobon) August 25, 2018
But posters are just posters, and with one month to go, I don’t see any one party or leader inspiring real passion. For the most part, it's business as usual and a lot of promises, some of which are decent and others questionable at best. I see controversies that have embarrassed party leaders, but nothing that has compelled real outrage or widespread public concern.
I see a lot of undecided and apathetic voters. Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb lyrics spring to mind.
With the Quebec economy doing well right now, I don't think anything is as firmly decided as recent polls appear to indicate. That CAQ majority win might not materialize at all, and we might soon discover that Quebecers' desire for change might in fact not be as strong as some people think it is.
Don't miss Toula Drimonis's next column from Montreal. Buy an annual subscription today and save 20% when you use the promo code TOULA.