Monday, May 16, 2011

Myths About Quebec's Irrelevancy

One commenter, CK of the blog Sister Sage's Musings (recommended read) pointed out in a post how many pundits and even some progressive Quebeckers are saying that Quebec is now essentially irrelevant, given that it's clear the Conservatives can now form a majority government without a major presence in Quebec. This could even lead to the idea that Quebec may not even bother staying if a referendum is held, given that it can't throw its weight around anymore.

However, this is the wrong conclusion to take from the May 2nd results. The fact is, since Joe Clark's time, the Conservatives haven't had the need to have a major presence in Quebec in order to win a majority government. In fact, Clark's 1979 election win was only six seats short of a majority; had Clark had slightly better numbers in Ontario and BC, he could have actually won a majority government, despite only having two seats in Quebec - and even if he had gained the extra six in Quebec, that's a grand total of only eight seats, and hardly a "large presence." In fact, if you look, since the 1976 order of representation, the first time all four Western provinces, when combined, have had more seats than Quebec, the electoral math has said clearly that the Conservatives' majority coalition didn't need even one seat in Quebec, granted they were able to hit the right notes in the rest of Canada. This is hard to actually do; but it's clear that Stephen Harper has managed to do it.

Think of it this way: in the 1980's, you needed about 150 seats to have a good majority. All it required of the Conservatives was 60-70 seats in the West; 60-65 seats in Ontario; and 20-25 seats in Atlantic Canada. On the lower end of the scale, they would need between 2-10 seats in Quebec to get an overall majority (or between 3-13% of all seats in Quebec). On the higher end of the scale, you didn't need any. History, however, simply had other plans; Mulroney had 153 seats without Quebec in 1984, but he got his massive 211-seat majority thanks to Quebec. But he did need Quebec in 1988, because of extremely low numbers in the West and Ontario (mid-40's in terms of seats). It's quirks like these that propel the myth, however, the electoral coalition for a majority in Canada does not require Quebec, and hasn't since the late 1970's.

However, this isn't true for the Liberals. For the entire history of the Liberal Party, a high result in Quebec is a must, otherwise the party can't form a majority government. This is because until the 1990's, the party always faced a large opposition in Ontario, and the province would give them only 50-60 seats, and that was on a good day. This has stayed true all the way up until today, except history has given the Liberals something of a break, thanks to the large majorities it built up in Ontario from 1993 to 2004 due to a vote split. Once the Conservatives and New Democrats started gaining traction in Ontario again, they lost their hold, and now that Quebec was beholden to the Bloc, there was no way for the Liberals to get a majority. At this point, there's actually no way for the Liberals to get a majority again, until Quebec returns to the Liberal fold, or the NDP collapses entirely.

The same will likely be true for the New Democrats coming into their new-found Official Opposition status. While they poll better than the Liberals in Western Canada, both historically and in the present, they are still not a match for the Conservatives, and as Mulroney did in 1988, they have the Quebec monkey on their back. However, you can expect the New Democrats to score usually between 10 to 20 seats in the West, about the same as the Liberals when they're high in the polls. If they get higher, 20 to 30 isn't out of the question, but more than that is a major stretch. This means that the NDP will rely on a coalition of Quebec and Ontario voters to get a majority, which makes their task extremely difficult, as they need to win at least 60-70 seats in Ontario to pull it off.

Here's a chart below explaining all of it, for all three parties:

The entire point of this post is simple: Quebec is not irrelevant, at least not to the two current Opposition parties. In that way, progressives from Quebec can remain secure in their identity as a kingmaker of Canada; after all, without Quebec there to back them up, neither the Liberals nor the NDP can  form a majority government, or to a point, a government at all. But don't fool yourselves into thinking that just because Harper got his majority without Quebec, the province is irrelevant; remember that the biggest political story of May 2nd was born out of Quebec, not the rest of Canada. No offense, Quebec, but you still got a lot of weight throw around.


  1. A province with 25% of the national population is never irrelevant. You cannot cede your political opponents that much of an edge and hope to win very often.

    Similarly for western Canada.

  2. Very good point, rabbit, very good point.