Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Election Post-Mortem: The Bloc

I was tempted to just post a snide comment along the lines of "don't let the door hit you on the way out" and leave it at that for the Bloc post-mortem. But their collapse may very well be the most sudden and shocking in the history of Canadian politics, so it deserves more than 10 words. Not much more, mind you, since I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on Quebec politics.

Before we jump in, it should be noted that Quebec has a history of swinging wildly from one party to the next, so maybe we shouldn't be too surprise by what happened. They'd tried every flavour but orange, so it may be as simple as that. Still, it's hard not to be taken aback by a 20 year old party collapsing from 50 seats to virtually nothing in the span of a few weeks.

So what went wrong?

The Bloc came to Ottawa with a clear raison d'etre, but that's been lacking for a decade. They were given a jolt of life thanks to the sponsorship scandal, but in recent years they've had little to latch on to. Sure, Gilles Duceppe was there to make sure Team Canada didn't name the wrong captain in 2007. He was there to stand up for the many who were outraged at the idea of Paul McCartney playing a concert on the Plains of Abraham (Quebecers are notorious Ringo fans). He was there to make sure Quebecers were not forced to choose between hockey and the French language debates.

Quite simply, the Bloc had lost relevancy, and anyone who has listened to Gilles Duceppe over the past 3 or 4 years would realize that.

So what went wrong for the Bloc is very similar to what went through for the Liberals. Duceppe did a great job telling Quebecers why they shouldn't vote for Stephen Harper, but he didn't give them a reason to vote Bloc - other than them being the default alternative. He waxed on about issues no one really cared out - the amount of time he spent talking about the 2004 coalition letter was baffling. He said nothing about how he would make the lives of Quebecers better.

When a more charismatic leader came along, Quebecers really had no good reason to stay with the Bloc, outside of nostalgia.

So what now?

For starters, the idea that separatism is dead is just absurd. The Bloc hasn't been about separatism for a decade and the party with the power to make a referendum happen is poised to win the next Quebec election. I'm not saying they will, but let's not read something into these results that isn't there.

It's also premature to write off a Bloc resurgence if they can find an issue to call their own. Jack Layton basically co-opted most of the Bloc's nationalist rhetoric this campaign, leaving Duceppe with little ground to occupy. If nationalists feel Layton has sold them out, or a new issue emerges that he refuses to take their side on, there will be an opening. As Paul Wells mused, it's not unfathomable to see 10 or 20 NDP MPs crossing the floor to join the Bloc down the road. All it really takes is one legitimate issue, and the Bloc could rise again.

Beyond that, I won't waste any more virtual ink on a party that has done nothing for Parliament or for Canada during its wasted 20 year existence. Enjoy your pensions and don't let the door hit you on the way out.


  • I didn't understand why Duceppe's primary target was Harper. He was battling with the left-wing parties for votes, not right-wing.

    I always hated the Bloc. Even if you believe Quebec is a nation, it doesn't make sense to support policies that hurt your closest allies, neighbours and friends just because it helps you out a little.

    And what if every region did that?

    Good riddance.

    By Blogger Robert Vollman, at 10:45 AM  

  • The situation in Quebec could go basically two ways, I think:

    1) The Bloc is really dead, in which case the other federalist parties will start competing in those regions again (which would have the potential to dramatically alter the parties' platforms, as they go after nationlist Quebec votes).

    2) The Bloc is not dead, after events over the next four years remind Quebeckers why they voted for the Bloc in the first place. The next election sees massive snap-back in the nationalist regions of the province. In this scenario, the NDP suffers the same problem as the ADQ did in 2007/2008.

    By Blogger Sean C, at 11:02 AM  

  • Off topic but, not only could 10-20 of Jack's NDPs re-join (yes, re-join) the Bloc, but I would not be at all surprised to see another 7-10 defect to the Green Party (thus providing Party status in the House) before Oct 2015.

    Quebec may be a majority of the NDP caucus today, but I don't think they will be by the next election call

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:03 AM  

  • I don't think Duceppe was necessarily stupid to target the Conservatives. First, he faced a real competition for seats with the Conservatives in Quebec City. Since Liberal support was concentrated in Anglo Montreal, the Liberal Quebec caucus offered fewer enticing targets. Secondly, by targeting Harper, Duceppe could help present himself as the voice of the left in the province.

    And I'm not willing to write the Bloc off as worthless. Over the past seven years, they have helped pass a number of bills, including multiple budgets. They've always stood up for Quebec interests, like the forestry industry. And on some issues, like euthanasia, they brought valid questions into the political discourse (although I disagree with them on that issue). Heck, as a federalist I'm not even sure if they helped the separatist cause. While they made the math of governing Canada difficult, they may have been a useful safety valve.

    By Anonymous hosertohoosier, at 12:08 PM  

  • The BQ never contributed much to Canada, true, but don't misunderestimate their contribution to Parliament.

    There have been times, especially in the past seven years, when they were the only ones with any respect for the traditions, rules, and practices of the House and Committees.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:17 PM  

  • "So what went wrong for the Bloc is very similar to what went through for the Liberals. Duceppe did a great job telling Quebecers why they shouldn't vote for Stephen Harper, but he didn't give them a reason to vote Bloc - other than them being the default alternative. He waxed on about issues no one really cared out - the amount of time he spent talking about the 2004 coalition letter was baffling. He said nothing about how he would make the lives of Quebecers better.

    When a more charismatic leader came along, Quebecers really had no good reason to stay with the Bloc, outside of nostalgia."

    Right! Voters defected from tired old parties with warmed up platforms.

    Of course, the grits and Bloc had their eye on harper's majority. But, Layton wouldn't sign on.

    That's why we split the center-left vote. No more fortress Toronto.

    So, analyze the winners. What can we learn from them?

    By Blogger JimTan, at 12:18 PM  

  • I think you're ignoring the basic similarity between the Bloc and the NDP on non-sovereigntist issues. Duceppe had good reason to worry about the Conservatives, both within and outside Quebec. Within Quebec he was competing with the Cons for seats. They'd gotten more than anyone expected the previous time around, and were working to consolidate those gains. But Quebec seats aside, he still had to worry about what a Conservative majority might do to Quebec with terrible policies and broken budgets. So he campaigned on opposition to the Cons--against Con lack of ethics, but also to some extent against right wing ideology. He reminded Quebecois that they were a left wing bunch.

    It didn't occur to him until it was too late that there was another left wing party competing, and that his reasons for voting Bloc applied to the NDP just as well. Effectively, he did the NDP's campaigning for them.

    By Blogger Purple library guy, at 4:03 PM  

  • Without Party status in the House, and without the Party per-vote subsidy, the question is whether the Bloc will be financially viable four years from now.

    The Party and their candidates will, no doubt, have incurred some debts in this past campaign, and one must wonder how many in Quebec will be willing to foot the bill for their potential - and by no means assured - resurgence.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:23 PM  

  • Well Robert, you have a point but I am not sure what could have been done about it. The Bloc, at least as they have developed over the past few years, has definitely been a left wing party that one would think would be in competition with the NDP. That said, how would they compete with the NDP? Their one hope was really that the NDP appear so marginal that Quebecers would assume that they had no hope of achieving what the Bloc could. The only thing the Bloc could really achieve as a left wing party would be to deny the Conservatives seats in Quebec and then, if the rest of the country did not return a Conservative majority, vote against any Conservative Throne Speech. Sure the NDP might not stand up for Quebec as effectively but they could stand against Harper much more effectively by forming, in part or in whole, the government of Canada.

    As it turns out, the rest of the country failed to play along and gave the Conservatives a majority. That said, the NDP did a better job of defeating Conservatives in Quebec than the Bloc had so voting NDP worked. What could the Bloc have done better? They can be a social democratic party but they can't implement social democratic policies.

    I sincerely doubt that the NDP surge in Quebec was merely a flash in the pan. The NDP has long wanted to break into Quebec, not only because it would provide them a certain amount of national credibility but also for the simple fact that Quebecers tend to agree with the party's positions to a greater extent than other Canadians. The theory has always been that all it would take is a solid breakthrough in the province to become a dominant force. I think that theory is very credible. Unless we assume that Quebec is poised to overthrow the Quiet Revolution and return to Duplessis style Catholic conservatism (if not pseudo fascism), there will be a natural NDP friendly constituency in the province. They have now shown that they can win in Quebec. Why would a party that both looks like it can win and matches the prevailing ideological winds suddenly collapse?

    That said, sure there could be some floor crossings before the next election. In the next election there could be some serious gains by other parties. With those caveats in mind the fact remains, the NDP is now credible in Quebec and they will remain so in the future.

    By Anonymous Robin, at 7:06 PM  

  • "Why would a party that both looks like it can win and matches the prevailing ideological winds suddenly collapse?"

    When the country gets to hear a lot more from Thomas Mulcair, you will have your answer.

    By Blogger Cindy, at 8:17 PM  

  • hosertohoosier and Anon 12:17p: Absolutely. Gilles Duceppe was an excellent parliamentarian, and he is respected for that across the Québec political spectrum. The Bloc was about the issues, and mostly stayed out of pointless partisan skirmishes these past few years.

    Robin: It's definitely true that Quebecers are, on balance, more left-wing than other Canadians. But it's easy to overestimate that phenomenon: leftist groups are notoriously loud and well-organized in Québec. Outside Montréal, many of the people that voted NDP this time would also have voted for a right-wing party headed by Layton. If the NDP does well, it can stay dominant. But a few missteps and a charismatic Liberal or Conservative leader are all it takes for another political earthquake in 2015.

    By Blogger Election Watcher, at 10:20 PM  

  • Election Watcher raises a good point about Quebec voters. I think that hats should be raised high to the NDP for breaking the "Bloc Lock". They may well be able to sustain this support, but the Quebec electorate is not homogeneous when viable alternatives are presented, and all national parties have an opportunity to gain support in Quebec because of this election result. I think the COnservatives are on to this and are about to deploy the equivalent of Jason Kenney to the Beauce and beyond, but is there not a chance for Liberals here too, especially to speak to young Quebecers who want to succeed? Liberals should get going on the ground both in Quebec and elsewhere, with a positive message and alternative, as Calgary Grit suggests may just work, thank God,and see if the Party has a future beyond saying "elect us because we should be in power."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:55 PM  

  • I'd like to see pension cheques become mini Canada flags, just for these guys.

    By Blogger matt, at 12:55 PM  

  • I can't understand why so many otherwise intelligent people are convinced that the NDP Quebec caucus is more fragile than an Italian striker in the penalty area. The people who run for a party at 12% in the polls aren't the opportunists; they're the true believers.

    I bet there will more Liberals defecting in the next four years than New Democrats.

    By Blogger Political Outsider, at 7:08 PM  

  • Nobody seems to be mentioning that the Bloc still pulled in a higher % of the popular vote than either the Liberals or the Conservatives. They lost a lot of narrow races. They would only have to gain a few percentage points in the popular vote to start winning quite a few seats back, especially with a lot of three way races possible.

    Their major challenge might be the funding issue, though.

    I haven't much sympathy for nationalism or separatism, but I think the Bloc does deserve credit because its existence has prevented us from having a conservative majority the last two elections, and their voting pattern in parliament has been quite reasonable.

    By Blogger MH, at 1:38 AM  

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