Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What Should Be Next for Quebec's Liberals?

The Charest era is definitively over
A couple of days ago, around 2,400 members of the Quebec Liberal Party, speaking both English and French (and probably more languages), elected their new leader following their election loss in December 2012. Philippe Couillard, a neurosurgeon, university professor, businessman, and former Health Minister (2003-2008), won the vast majority of delegates and defeated two former colleagues for the top spot. Now that this has been settled, the fun will begin.

On the top bar of this page (so long as you're not on mobile), you'll see the page I've set up for my rolling projections for Quebec, based on all polls released since December 2012. The numbers haven't really changed since then, though the PQ, on just over 32% support, wins a majority government thanks to the funky vote splits of the 2012 election; the PLQ have dropped down a bit since the election. But, the race is still very close, and if one of the three main parties can catch on to any bit of momentum, they'll be laughing by the time of the next election.

So the question for Liberals is whether or not Couillard has what it takes to spark that momentum? Polling so far suggests that, at least from the outset, Couillard will need to work to get Quebeckers interested in the PLQ again.

Léger Marketing, one of the two frequent pollsters in Quebec, put out a recent poll which showed that Couillard remained the best option for the PLQ, when you put them head to head against their opponents. The topline numbers for the poll showed the PQ leading the Liberals, 31% to 30%, with François Legault's CAQ sitting at 20%. Under a hypothetical Couillard-led PLQ, it was 30% péquiste to 30% for the Liberals and 19% for the CAQ. Pierre Moreau and Raymond Bachand, Couillard's former competitors, caused the Liberals to drop heavily.

So while Couillard is, on the face of it, a better choice than the others, the likelihood of the PLQ zooming ahead isn't necessarily great. There will probably be a slight honeymoon effect, but Quebec's politics are mired in indecision these days.

The standard strategy would make the seatless Couillard and his battered party generate momentum by renewing the brand and providing new reasons for Quebeckers to lend their support back to les libéraux. But, given recent speculation by Couillard on the Constitution debate, as well as corruption allegations swirling around, we may not be off to a good start. Thorough rebranding and policy takes time, and I'm not necessarily sure time is on the Quebec Liberal's side.

So, I think the best option for the next election is for Couillard offer himself up as a blank slate - Quebeckers seem interested in that. We saw it with the CAQ's rise in the polls (and subsequent tumble after they absorbed the conservative adéquistes), not to mention the rise of the NDP in Quebec, who went from zero to heroes mostly because Layton and his candidates offered themselves up as a new, untested option that Quebeckers could define for themselves.

Couillard and co. are also going to need to come out swinging against the Parti Québécois government, no stranger to controversy itself; as well as the still-fledgling CAQ, which hasn't really done much of anything lately. A targeted campaign against Pauline Marois and her cohorts should start now, and the Liberals should attack Legault for failing to be the "true" opposition to the péquiste's buffoonery. The PLQ should offer themselves up as a party with fresh, new people at the top, a break from the recent past and petty squabbling of the current government and inept caquistes. Quebeckers seem to have an appreciation for that kind of motif these days. That also means pushing for an election as soon as possible - the Liberals shouldn't get mired down in notions of friendly co-operation and so on. That only benefits the other two parties.

I wouldn't leave it too long, lest Couillard's opponents get the time they need to define his leadership, or even letting Couillard get a chance to define himself.

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