The Conservatives’ Quebec Strategy

October 4, 2019

With the French language TVA debate this week, let’s take a look at Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer’s strategy in Quebec.

TVA is one of Quebec’s most widely-watched networks, and reaches a large audience among the highly-coveted swing ridings outside the island of Montreal. TVA viewers are the exact voters that both the Liberals and the Conservatives must recruit. The Liberals need to offset potential seat losses elsewhere in the country, specifically in the West and Atlantic Canada while those same rural and suburban Quebec seats are vital for the Conservatives who seek modest gains in Quebec.

Andrew Scheer has a lot stacked against him in Quebec: as the weakest French-speaker of the group, he is competing against home-grown candidates (Trudeau, Bernier, and Blanchet) in a more left-leaning, pro-environment province (current projections show the Liberals are leading by almost 15 points).

The Conservatives hope to win seats in Quebec by targeting winnable ridings with platforms that appeal to Quebec nationalists who voted for the provincial government (Coalition Avenir Québec, or CAQ) and who may be considering voting for the Bloc. The first question is: how?

Policy Tactics

Inherent in the discussion around the Conservative Party’s Quebec platform is which voters they are trying to win over. Most of the so-called “winnable” ridings for the CPC in Quebec have the Tories facing off against the Liberals, with only a few instances of the Conservatives battling against the Bloc Québécois. This is partly because the Bloc have seen a tumultuous past year – what Blue Jays fans might call a “rebuild season” – that concluded with Yves-François Blanchet being acclaimed as the leader of the Bloc the same year as the federal election. This short time-line between a leadership election and a general election is hard for any party to rebuild a strong base of support. To his credit, Blanchet is riding a wave of support for his similar policy approaches as the popular Premier Legault and currently has the Bloc polling second behind the Liberals – an incredible, and troubling resurgence of the Bloc from a broader Canadian perspective.

How do these party dynamics impact the Conservatives’ Quebec policy platform? As we saw in the Chicoutimi–Le Fjord by-election in 2018, wherein Richard Martel won with 53% of the vote, the Conservatives’ strategy appealed to erstwhile separatists and soft nationalists under a banner of economic development, natural resource extraction(Chicoutimi–Le Fjord is in the heart of Quebec’s aluminum industry), and socio-cultural autonomy (touching on issues like immigration). These campaign promises align with CAQ Party interests under Premier François Legault, which signals that the Conservatives have implemented a Quebec platform that aims to win over erstwhile separatists and soft nationalists who voted for CAQ, and who may be considering a vote for the Bloc.

It’s important to note that, while the Bloc and CAQ seem on the surface to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, really both the Bloc and CAQ are considered by Quebeckers as bipartisan coalitions of sovereigntist. What this means for Scheer is that even though the Bloc are running a hard écologisteplatform on climate change, the Conservatives can still appeal to both CAQ and Bloc voters by promising more power for Quebec.

Premier Legault appealed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a private meeting in January to allow Quebec to directly collect federal taxes (Quebec would be the only province to do so), so that Quebec ratepayers only have to file one return. Legault also asked Trudeau to give Quebec greater control over immigration, and for Ottawa to sign off on Legault’s plan to cut immigration levels by 20%. While the Prime Minister did not give a clear yes or no answer to Legault, Scheer has made announcements that align with Legault’s requests.  

Scheer has promised that, if elected in 2019, he would allow Quebec to collect federal taxes on Ottawa’s behalf, is promising incentives for retirees who want to go back to work in response to concerns over labour shortages in Quebec. A Conservative government would also reinstate a separate cabinet post for Quebec’s economic development agency.

On socio-cultural issues, a Conservative government would give Quebec “autonomy” over immigration issues, and Scheer’s platform for immigration reform appeals to CAQ supporters as Legault wants to cut immigration levels by 20%. Scheer was also the first candidate to commit to not intervening in Quebec’s secularism law, Bill 21.

As a result, Scheer has continued with much of the same promises in Quebec during the official election period in key winnable ridings. These ridings are mostly rural and exurban areas around Quebec City and in the Chaudière-Appalaches (like Beauport–Limoilou, Bellechasse–Les Etchemins–Lévis, Charlesbourg–Haute-Saint-Charles, Lévis–Lotbinière, and Beauport-Côte-de-Beaupré-Île d'Orléans-Charlevoix) and exurban ridings in the centre of Quebec and in the Eastern townships (like Mégantic–L'Érable and Richmond–Arthabaska). Once again, the Conservative Party is keeping an eye on Chicoutimi–Le Fjord, where the Conservatives won a key by-election in 2018 by touting CAQ-like policies.

Branding Tactics

Outside pure policy, we can see several branding tactics that the Conservatives are using to earn support from erstwhile separatists and soft nationalists who voted for CAQ and voters who are otherwise considering voting for the Bloc.

The Conservative Party slogan is “It’s time for you to get ahead,” but their French slogan is “plus pour vous de maintenant.” The choice of “maintenant” is a clever way to appeal to CAQ voters, who will remember that the CAQ slogan in the 2018 provincial election was simply: “Maintenant.”

Additionally, Conservative lawn signs for Quebec are slightly different than CPC lawn signs found in the rest of the country: CPC lawn signs for Quebec candidates have the Quebec flag in the background.

To offset Scheer’s low popularity numbers in Quebec, the Conservatives have recruited star candidates who can garner enough support themselves, like former mayor Yves Lévesque in Trois-Rivières, and popular hockey coach Richard Martel in Chicoutimi–Le Fjord. Martel, as a popular former junior hockey coach, was well-known and well-liked in the community, and was the highest-profile candidate in his by-election. This year, he will be campaigning with Philippe Gagnon, who won four medals in para-swimming at the 2000 Paralympic Games in Sydney (Martel is currently polling at 37.6%, 14 points higher than the Liberals in second place).

Conclusion

Depending on what happens in Ontario, the Conservatives likely need to win more than their current projection of 15-16 seats in Quebec in order to form government. While that seems unlikely today, Scheer’s strategy in Quebec combined with a resurgent Bloc might be enough to stop a Liberal majority and give a Conservative Opposition greater influence in a new minority Liberal government.