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Unlikely coalition could still keep PQ from power 0

John Robson, Parliamentary Bureau
Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, right,shakes hands with new Premier-Designate Pauline Marois during a photo-op at his office at the National Assembly in Quebec City, September 6, 2012. (Annie T Roussel/QMI Agency)

Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest, right,shakes hands with new Premier-Designate Pauline Marois during a photo-op at his office at the National Assembly in Quebec City, September 6, 2012. (Annie T Roussel/QMI Agency)

What really happened in the Quebec election? A lot of things. But the short answer is, voters elected legislators.

Forget the Globe and Mail's vacuous "Quebecers choose change" headline. The Parti Quebecois is hardly a novelty in provincial politics and its core philosophy, beyond formal sovereignty which is not currently popular, is not to change the approach of the past 40 years.

Forget also, and more importantly, the notion that Quebecers simply elected a minority Parti Quebecois government or made Pauline Marois premier-elect or any of that guff.

Marois may well be asked to serve as Her Majesty's first minister. But it is not a foregone conclusion, let alone the result of the election, because Canadians do not elect premiers or prime ministers. We elect members of the legislature to keep the executive under control by yanking on the purse strings.

Of course, our legislators have surrendered much of their independence to party machines. It's a mixed blessing, since without party discipline no program can be implemented or coherently opposed, but it has tended to reduce legislators to junior partners of an emerging 'fourth branch' of cabinet and senior bureaucrats. But we do not directly elect the person who heads this branch and it is well that we do not.

Instead we elect legislators. The Queen's representative then chooses as first minister the person most probably able to command majority support in the legislature on key bills, especially money bills. And they continue in office until they lose a confidence vote or the Queen's representative dissolves the legislature and a new election is held. And here you see the problem.

Marois can probably count on the support of 54 PQ members. Add in Quebec Solidaire's two even-more-left-wing MNAs and she's at 56 votes. But it takes 63 to carry the Quebec legislature. It is very hard to understand where anyone thinks she can find the missing seven seats - or eight, once the Speaker is chosen from her party, as convention dictates.

If not her, who? The Liberals just lost their majority and their leader. But his successor will still have 50 MNAs. Add in the 19 won by Francois Legault's Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), closer to the Liberals on economic and constitutional issues, and you get a clear working majority.

Many people, including many Quebecers, think Pauline Marois has a mandate to be premier because her party won the most seats. But it doesn't work that way. As David Mitchell of the Public Policy Forum noted in a piece published Thursday, Frank Miller's Tories won the most seats in Ontario's 1985 election but since Liberal David Peterson was clearly philosophically closer to the NDP that held the balance of power, he was invited to become premier and did.

As for the claim that the PQ have a mandate because they got the largest share of the popular vote, they secured just 31.9% of a record-low turnout, which most people would surely call proof that they have no mandate to separate. Plus their share of the popular vote fell by 3% from the 2008 election. By contrast, a majority of eligible voters who bothered to turn out cast their ballots for the Liberals (31.2%) plus CAQ (27%).

Having said all that, Quebecers would probably be shocked if the PQ were not given first crack at the ministry. There, as elsewhere, too many people view elections as a referendum on what man on horseback should wield essentially unchecked power for four years. Besides, for CAQ to campaign against alleged Liberal corruption then hop into bed with them might prove politically disastrous.

On the other hand, it's not very appealing for CAQ to vote with the Liberals to bring down Marois at the first occasion and carry the odium of forcing another election, or abstain ignominiously on important votes and reduce themselves to useless spectators in a legislative drama they fought so hard to participate in.

Politically ugly or not, these are the real alternatives because of how our system works. It may not be obvious, especially to Quebecers. But parties in Canada do not get mandates from voters. Legislators do, and ministries get mandates from them.

Or not, in the case of Pauline Marois.


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