Québec solidaire prepares for the future

December 7, 2018

In October, Quebec had a monumental election that changed the political landscape, with a new right-wing “populist” party taking power and mainstream parties sustaining historical defeats — but the radical left-wing party Québec solidaire emerging as a new political force. Benoit Renaud, a member of the national coordinating committee for Québec solidaire and a candidate in the recent election spoke with Kristen Sheets about what comes next for the left with a new government taking office.

THE RECENT election in Quebec seemed to mark a dramatic shift in Quebec politics with the previously dominant Liberal Party and Parti Québécois both receiving an all-time low vote. What were the causes of this shift in the political terrain? What is happening in Quebec and Canada beyond that you see to be the causes of this shift we’re now seeing electorally?

THERE ARE two key aspects. One is the way that the government has been managing public services, taxes and other aspects of provincial management over the past 30 years, and the other is how the national question in Quebec has evolved over this same period.

Both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois (PQ) have governed Quebec from the center-right — or perhaps more accurately, the extreme center, similar to the Democrats in the United States or Macron in France. Basically, the neoliberal approach to government spending and social programs is hegemonic. A program of austerity has been pursued, no matter which one of the two parties was in power.

Supporters of Québec Solidaire on the march in Montreal
Supporters of Québec Solidaire on the march in Montreal

That is a significant element to the current situation and the starting point for Québec solidaire’s (QS) existence. QS was formed because both of the parties were implementing the same policies, and there was a need for a political alternative.

Regarding the other significant aspect, the national question, both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois suffered a series of defeats of their projects. They were antagonistic projects, but they both lost against the forces of the Canadian state and the institutional status quo.

The Liberals’ project was a more decentralized Canadian federalism, with more autonomy, more recognition for Quebec inside Canada. This was the position of the Liberal Party until the early 1990s when those ambitions failed. Since then, the position of the Liberals has been to be the party that accepts the status quo.

The origins of Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), the new party that won the recent election, is a split within the Liberal Party. It consisted of those within the Liberal Party who wanted to continue with the autonomist perspective, trying to get more power for the province inside the federation.

PQ has been in a crisis of strategy since the referendum of 1995. Following the failed attempts to reform the Canadian constitution in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, PQ was back in power in 1994 and held the second referendum on sovereignty, which was lost by only 1 percent of the vote: 49.5 percent to 50.5 percent.

Since then, it has been unable to renew its strategy and figure out a new way forward to fight for independence. It has been paralyzed by the contradiction between its original objective of achieving Quebec sovereignty and the de facto goal of the party, which has been to win elections and to form the provincial government.

There has always been tension between these two goals — for PQ, putting the issue of sovereignty up front could risk losing votes.

In this last election, PQ decided not to include the issue of sovereignty in its platform, making a clear commitment to reintroduce it in 2022, only if they were to win this election. This contributed to a good number of their supporters deciding to either vote for QS because they identified more with the left or deciding to vote CAQ because they identified more with conservative ideas.

This is why PQ’s results in this election were the worst in the history of the party — only 17 percent of the vote. To put this in perspective, PQ got more than that in 1970, when it ran for the first time, only two years after the party was founded.

There’s one more piece of the puzzle that should be mentioned: the issues of Islamophobia, xenophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric. For the first 40 years of its existence, PQ avoided getting into that type of nationalism and maintained a perspective of civic nationalism, basically saying that you are Québécois if you live in Quebec and you want to continue living in Quebec.

In 2007, the predecessor of CAQ, Action démocratique du Québec (ADQ), was the party that first put forward xenophobic, vaguely racist, anti-immigration ideas — and that has changed the political terrain. ADQ used that xenophobia as an attempt to build its popular support among a certain layer of the public and managed to come in second in the 2007 election — a huge shock to PQ at the time.

PQ responded to that by adopting some of those xenophobic positions, such as advocating to ban the wearing of religious symbols for people working in public services — taking on the campaign against the hijab, in particular. As a result, PQ managed to win back some of that more conservative nationalistic support in the elections of 2008, 2012 and 2014.

But in the long run they’ve conceded ground, basically sending out the message that the CAQ policy on these questions is acceptable. By saying that their opponent was right, they gave their opponent more legitimacy, laying the groundwork for CAQ to win — which they did in this election.

COULD YOU say more about CAQ? What should we expect from their term in power?

CAQ IS quite similar to the Canadian Conservative Party.

It’s a mixed bag of people who are on the right for specific social economic questions: they want lower taxes, less regulation of business, that sort of thing. A bit of a moderate libertarian right-wing economic program, combined with a type of conservative nationalism that is not outright racist like some parties in Europe — for instance, the Front National in France or the UK Independence Party.

CAQ uses a type of dog-whistle politics to appeal to racists without being explicitly so. The Canadian Conservative Party under Stephen Harper has also used this strategy, as have other provincial conservatives — for instance, in Ontario, where the Conservatives recently won the election.

CAQ is conservative, but it is not the far right. It certainly has an appeal to people who are not racist at all. In this election, it got 1.5 million votes. Many of the people who voted for CAQ did so essentially to remove the Liberals from government.

The heart of CAQ’s campaign this election was simply saying that we’re not the liberals. There’s an expression in French: auberge espagnole, a place that becomes whatever people who show up want it to be.

CAQ is a very broad tent and includes some very far-right wing individuals, particularly on economic questions, and there are indications that some of the groups on the far-right are happy that CAQ won. But it is still a broad conservative party with all kinds of people in it who have a variety of personal agendas.

In spite of the fact that it has a majority in the legislative assembly, this is likely to be a relatively weak government because the CAQ is so eclectic and vague in terms of its political orientation.

In terms of expectations regarding the new CAQ government, I think it’s just going to be the next phase in implementing neoliberal policy. They are going to try to go a little bit further than the Liberals under the previous government — just as the Liberals went further than PQ did in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

CAQ is just the next runner in the relay race of neoliberal policy going back to 1982. Many of the 1.5 million people who voted for them are going to figure out in a few months or a few years perhaps that they made a horrible mistake, and they didn’t vote for these new austerity policies.

I’m expecting that social movements and the labor movement, along with various groups in society, are going to resist those particular policies. It’s not decided in advance what is actually going to be implemented. The past few times that the government has tried to push for policies of austerity, there has been a certain level of resistance. I believe this time, it’s going to be stronger than we’ve ever seen.

Nobody in the social movements identifies with CAQ. This is a fundamentally different situation than with PQ, which, to some extent, connected to those movements. The people who voted for CAQ aren’t going to fight against those movements in workplaces or on the ground. It’s going to be social movements versus the government.

QS will have 10 people in the national assembly, which will allow for the parliamentary expression of those struggles, and QS can feed those struggles all the information we can gather in parliament. We can also inspire the movements by showing that an alternative is there and is gaining credibility. It’s going to be an interesting dynamic.

WHAT ARE the next steps for Québec solidaire in terms of catalyzing left-wing opposition within the government?

IT’S ALWAYS a challenge to develop that side of the party. Everyone in the party thinks that this is something QS should do, but there are different views as to how to do it.

Recently, we’ve brought together our active members based on what kind of involvement they have in social movements. There’s a network of union activists and a network of environmental movement activists, which were both formed relatively recently. These groups are going to play an increasingly important role in the overall activity of the party.

In Gatineau, where I am based, the challenge is going to be to form a local chapter of that network of union activists. Rank-and-file networks in the union movement need to be organized, and this network will be increasingly important in the lead-up to 2020, when the next round of public-sector bargaining will take place. That’s half a million workers, all negotiating their collective agreements at the same time.

Historically, these moments have been opportunities for the union movement to engage in significant struggle with the government — sometimes winning, sometimes losing and sometimes reaching some kind of stalemate.

As I mentioned earlier, workers involved in the union movement have absolutely no sympathy for the government whatsoever and will see this as an opportunity to fight against them. This could potentially be the highest level of labor struggle in Quebec since 1972 — something similar to the student strike of 2012, but for the labor movement.

QS would be the only political party able to give political expression to that kind of movement because we are the only party clearly on its side. PQ will continue trying to play both sides on this issue, and the Liberals will be essentially on the side of the government. This should be a promising dynamic in terms of building the party.

One of the consequences of this past election is that the notion that QS could form the government is no longer farfetched. We got 16 percent of the vote, as opposed to 7.5 percent last time — this is quite significant.

Considering how fast the political landscape can evolve, it is totally imaginable that in 2022, QS could outright win the election. The main challenge for QS is to get ready for that, because it could easily be either a triumph or a complete disaster.

When the left come to power, all kinds of things can happen, and if we are not ready for the resistance we are going to get from the other side, we could have a scenario similar to what happened to SYRIZA in Greece or the independence movement in Catalonia. If we don’t want that to happen, we need to start figuring out our strategy and get ready as soon as possible.

OUTSIDE OF cohering the labor left within QS, what are the tasks that QS sees ahead of itself in terms of laying a foundation for the goal of forming the provincial government?

APART FROM continuing to maintain and build links with social movements, which is obviously key, QS needs to come to a concrete plan of what we are going to do if we win. What do we do during the first week? What do we do during the first month?

In common discussion, people will refer to this as taking power, but that is an oversimplification. You end up having more power, but there’s still a lot of power that is not in the hands of the government, especially if it is a provincial government inside a larger state.

QS is going to have to develop a concrete plan of how to go from point A to point B and not be blocked along the way either by the federal government or by pressures from the business class or financial markets.

For decades, we have seen elections changing the party in power, but not much in society. That’s the enormous challenge ahead of us — we have four years to prepare, and many in the party are seriously thinking about these questions.

We need to broaden out that discussion and make it a collective effort involving as many party members as possible, and also social movement. QS needs to get into a dialogue with social movements. We need to be as concrete as possible, as opposed to making vague promises and being unable to deliver.

QS HAS a pro-independent stance on the national question. Can you elaborate on the question of independence in Quebec today — how has this question changed in Quebec? What would that stance mean should QS form the government in 2022?

ONE OF the main challenges QS has ahead of it, in terms of advancing from 16 percent of the vote to winning the election, is to completely renew the strategy and the vision of what independence can mean and how to achieve it.

Our view, in short, is to first give a social content to the project of independence, and base it on meeting the needs of the majority of people.

PQ has the slogan that independence is neither right nor left — independence is just about independence, and in order to win a majority, you should avoid all the other issues that might be divisive. This gives you the lowest common denominator — saying that we all agree on independence, and it shouldn’t matter if we don’t agree on anything else. PQ leaves these questions as something to be resolved post-independence.

For QS, the strategy has always been to make independence something contentful, in terms of having stronger democracy, more social justice, an ecological economy and as a way to building a better society than we have now.

Independence is a goal that has value on its own, but it should be seen as a means to achieving other ends. This is the way that we can win a majority of people to a pro-independence position — those who will support the project if they see it as a way of achieving other goals on a variety of fronts.

In short, we have a fundamentally different approach on what the basis for unity should be. This is why unity between QS and PQ is very difficult to imagine. There would be a moment of unity when it is time to specifically make the decision to achieve independence, as in a referendum. But before or after that, the differences are too deep.

Another connection to be made within the context of QS’s position of independence is our rejection of any kind of xenophobia or discrimination. We are not interested in coming to any sort of compromise when it comes to human rights.

The rights of religious minorities has been a topic of debate in Quebec for over 10 years now, and essentially, the first thing that the new government did was renew the question of religious symbols, similar to the one that PQ brought forward in 2013.

QS’s project of independence aims to be inclusive of everyone who lives in Quebec, as well as in solidarity with First Nations. QS doesn’t want self-determination for just us, but for all nations in the territory we refer to as the province of Quebec, and across Canada.

There is a lot of potential there for solidarity, as well as a need to redefine the fight for independence in a way that’s different from what we have seen before.

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