Brian Mulroney, role model

Brian Mulroney, role model
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There was a lot of mostly useless gossip in the Canadian press this weekend over some manner of secret summit between former prime minister Brian Mulroney and current prime minister Stephen Harper. Supposedly, Harper was looking for advice on how to “woo Quebec voters” back to the Tory brand, a problem that has become much more evident in the wake of some recent polls.

According to the most up-to-date poll synthesis of the famed Canadian poll synthesizers at, the Conservative Party of Canada is currently languishing in last place among voters in the French province, at 15.8%, compared to 21.6% for the separatist Bloc Quebecois and a hearty 41.8% for the NDP. Only the Liberals are suffering from comparatively low numbers — and frankly, that’s about the worst insult you can get in Canadian politics right now.

The 15% figure for the CPC is especially depressing when you consider that the party only won 16% of the Quebec vote in last year’s federal election, meaning Harper has actually made negative progress since winning his third term last spring.

In such a grim context, it’s hard not to be inspired by the Mulroney record. The former Progressive Conservative boss won a solid majority of the Quebec vote in both of his terms, and even slightly improved from one to the other, winning 50% in the 1984 election and 52% in 1988.

But here’s the thing; he was also the last prime minister to do so.

Despite leading three back-to-back majority governments, the decade-long Liberal administration of Jean Chretien that succeeded Mulroney never managed to secure a majority of the Quebec vote; his figures were 33% (1993), 36% (1997), and 44% (2000). And of course neither did Paul Martin’s one-term minority government that replaced him (33% in 2004), or Harper’s first two minority terms (24% in 2006, 21% in 2008). In short, Mulroney may not be such a worthwhile role model after all; he had certainly perfected one strategy, but his heirs have proven there are other equally viable paths to power.

Part of the problem is that since the Mulroney days Quebec has largely opted-out of Canadian elections, at least in the sense of appearing to care about the national consequences of its provincial votes. From nearly 18 years, after all, the Quebec parliamentary caucus was dominated by the Bloc Quebocois — a region-exclusive party that could not elect a prime minister even if it wanted to — and in 2011 the  province swang erratically to the NDP, just as its popularity was declining elsewhere. In both cases, these unorthodox preferences were justified on the shallow basis that such eccentric MPs would be “good for Quebec,” an attitude that presumes the federal government is a fundamentally hostile (or at least foreign) entity that Quebecers don’t really engage with so much as occupy.

As an Anglo-westerner with little natural interest in Quebec affairs, Harper’s ability to crack the province’s psychological-nationalist shell seems pretty remote, and with a majority government already forged from more sympathetic parts of the country, one can easily question why he should even care. It’s certainly hard to imagine Mitt Romney exerting much energy to “win back” San Francisco and Brooklyn, for instance, and President Obama will almost certainly spent little of his precious time vainly trying to convert Utah or Wyoming. The obsession with pursuing unanimous national support for the sheer sake of it seems to be a uniquely Canadian peculiarity, and not one with a particularly attractive track record of success, either.

Like some kind of horrible draw string, grabbing a good hunk of political support in one part of Canada has a funny tendency to violently retract an equal hunk elsewhere. Stephen Harper of all people should be keenly aware of this, considering his own political career began as one of the founding fathers of Reform, a western-centric political party forged explicitly as a counter-reaction to Mulroney’s own Quebec obsession. Indeed, to the extent Mulroney has any useful advice to give regarding electoral strategy at all, it should be to avoid the gluttonous pursuit of too much of a good thing, considering the truly epic, Reform-led collapse of the Mulroney majority coalition in 1993.

As the cartoon suggests, Mulroney’s single-minded mission to improve his already good showing in Quebec through preferential deals and later, constitutional gimmicks, merely exacerbated an already precarious balancing act between his western and French bases; westerners resented the obvious pandering — which frequently came at the expense of their own economic and political interests — while Quebecers came to expect more than they could realistically be given. The end result? Mutual dissatisfaction, political collapse, and the ascent to power of Jean Chretien, a man whose government turned the the exploitation of this bitter geographic divide into the very engine of his political machine. With Thomas Mulcair already posed to copy the Chretien playbook, a Harper effort to become the next Mulroney seems like exactly the wrong goal for the wrong man at the wrong time.

To be fair, seeking “advice” does not always mean slavishly seeking to emulate. For all his flaws, Stephen Harper remains a cynical student of Canada’s patriotic fables and practical realities, and one hopes his tenure in Ottawa has not been so long or blinding as to make him forget his own roots. A consultation with Mulroney could just as easily be an exercise in making connections, confronting a devil’s advocate, or simply hearing the facts on the ground from someone whose personal and professional ties to Quebecois society are considerably deeper than the PM’s.

If not? Well, Harper can’t say he didn’t give himself any warning.


  1. Colin Minich

    You want to woo votes in Quebec? Pay for their tuitions har har har.

    But in all seriousness, that has got to be one of the worst ideas from I've seen from a politician to win votes, because you're deliberately sabotaging good business practice without the guarantee that what you hope to accomplish will come to fruition. But you have to love ironic fate.

    A region is only as good for winning as the knowledge of the votes being the game changer will be. Obama wouldn't waste time in Wyoming because there might be the possibility that electoral votes would not impact him as greatly as projected and the same could be said for Romney and somewhere like Vermont.

  2. Yannick

    Quebec is the second most populous and vote-rich province in the country; getting seats there is definitely a game-changer.

  3. Colin Minich

    I wasn't quite in disagreement with the sense that Quebec didn't have a populated concentration, but I was questioning just how much effort can truly be put into it without placating the region and losing your own party credo.

  4. Yannick

    Well, Harper managed to grab 10 seats in Quebec in his first two elections. Given that he was away from a majority by something around 15 seats, he was trying his luck everywhere he could. Eventually where he managed to succeed was Ontario's suburbs.

  5. Tweeg

    What is it with conservatives and jet contracts ?!?
    Mulroney in 86 and currently Harper with the F-35s.

    Its weird that you used the 86 Jet scandal as a negative for the PC party of old JJ with the whole current controversy of the F-35s.

  6. ThePsudo

    That would be weird if the goal was to get people to vote conservative. It's not weird if the goal is to give opinions about politics.

  7. Xyrix

    The way for a political party to win voters in Quebec is for the party to be sympathetic to Quebec’s interests, and to offer at least the possibility of Quebec to democratically decide to determine its own destiny.

    Mulroney won votes in Quebec because he was willing to begin constitutional reform which would end on terms acceptable to Quebec. The Bloc was formed afterwards, and won many votes not just from hard-core separatists but from people who were somewhere in between on the issue because many Quebecers felt that not only were all the federal parties opposed to separation but they were opposed to the idea that Quebec should even have self-determination over its fate.

    It’s easy for we Anglophones to say that Quebec is only politically motivated by graft or that it will never accept political leaders from the province, but the situation is more complicated than that.

    (As a coda, I find Bill 101 abhorrent and think that Quebec actually separating would be awful, but self-determination must be held as the most important human right, otherwise we would still have colonies and imperialism.)

  8. Wyatt Tessari

    You seem to forget the main issue: if a referendum were held today, Harper = disintegration of Canada.

    Unless there's some kind of Mulcair/Trudeau alliance that could lead the federal side of the debate in his place, Harper would be the perfect symbol to fight against for the sovereignist forces. He's smart enough to be aware of this, and although Mulroney may not be the most credible source of advice, Harper doesn't exactly have many other conservative options to choose from.

  9. Yannick

    In the last election, Harper ran under two slogans. There was "Here for Canada", which could be seen coast-to-coast and in Montrael, and another one for Francophone Quebec.

    That one was "Notre région au pouvoir!" (Our region to power). Such a blatant vote-pandering, I have never seen. "Vote for us, and you will have a slice of the pie." The slogan must have been deeply embarrassing for Harper because to find references to it nowadays you essentially have to access cached pages as well as facebook groups, or french-only press releases. There used to be TV ads that one could see on youtube where the slogan was "Notre région au pouvoir!" but they have since been pulled off.

    Here's one such press release – when it came out, the slogan atop the screen was "notre région au pouvoir". It has since been replaced with "ici pour le canada" (here for Canada).

    Here was a cbc article on the subject –

    Unfortunately for him, it appears Quebec cannot be bought as much as people usually assume, else we would have expected the we-will-buy-your-votes campaign to result in vote gains instead of losses. Attempts to do it haven't done Harper any good, in any case. The province responded by massively swinging over to the NDP and single-handedly causing the "Orange Crush", the ramifications of which are still being felt today. The NDP is now in second or first place in every single province. Not bad for a bunch of people who "opted out of National politics".

    The problem with Quebec is that people from outside have no real desire to understand their needs or aspirations, preferring instead to make broad, lazy generalizations like "they want bribes". Funny enough the bribes don't work, and the reaction is "well they're just reaching for more, the greedy buggers". Perhaps the reason the province voted Bloq and NDP isn't because they want bribes, but because those parties were the only ones who could represent their constituents?

  10. Yannick

    For those who would imagine that this was going on without Harper's knowledge, here's a picture of him giving a speech in front of a "Notre région au pouvoir" backdrop.

  11. Yannick

    Oops, picture is here.×290/201104/20/323456-p

  12. Yannick

    Funny, 2-3 days after I post a link to the "notre région au pouvoir" press release on the Conservative website itself, the link is now broken.

    Rewriting history, Conservative party? Why don't you…

  13. Colin Minich

    Heh…don't hate the player, hate the game. :P

  14. JonasB

    My understanding of the way federal elections work is that what people are actually voting for is their MP, with the Prime Minister being a sort of by-product rather than the direct result. It makes sense to vote for whoever is best for your local area. So voting for whoever is "right for Quebec" without regard for the federal consequences seems to be a reasonable behaviour under the way the elections are carried out.

    To use a (hastily constructed) municipal/provincial analogy: if the premier was determined by the majority affiliations of the mayors, you'd still be more concerned that you had a mayor you liked rather than a premier the province could enjoy.

  15. Yannick

    Yes and no. Canada's strange like that. People *vote* for a party, but they *elect* a local MP. Who the local guy is is something some people keep in mind, sure, but most people vote for which party they think would best represent them. That's how Canada has almost always had at least three parties in place, if not more, in spite of the first-past-the-post system.

    In Quebec, that has usually been the Liberals with very few times the Conservatives. After the failure of the Meech Lake accord, Quebec elected the Bloc as their MPs as a protest move and held a referendum that almost succeeded. Why they kept the Bloc afterward is anyone's guess – but I believe it's because they didn't think anyone else represented them. Certainly not the PCs, as they're the ones who defected and formed the Bloc in the first place. Not the Liberals, because they were the ones who had brought the Constitution home in the back of Quebec's premier. Not the Reform, as its raison-d'être was to complain about the east (especially Quebec). That left the NDP and the Bloc, and the Bloc had the advantage of holding all the high-profile PC MPs that used to exist in the Mulroney government while the NDP was not taken seriously by many people.

    One can wonder why the NDP was not elected beforehand, actually. I can only imagine a certain amount of inertia, once a psychological treshhold was passed the majority of the Bloc and Liberal supporters switched over the NDP in the matter of a week or two.

  16. Jake_Ackers

    I beat you can win more votes by treating Quebec like any other province. Who is going to argue against that? I suppose you could but it would look like you love Quebec more than Canada. Just don't go on an anti-Quebec rampage. At least it will be cheaper for the country thus helping balancing the budget and resulting in more votes.

    Let me put it this way. I don't have the numbers in front of me. But consider all the close ridings the Cons lost versus all the ridings they won in Quebec. If Cons treated Quebec just like any other province without going on an anti-Quebec rampage or even if they did. Would there be enough close call seats to switch to the Cons and fill the lost Quebec seats?

  17. A. Apolis

    "The 15% figure for the CPC is especially depressing when you consider that the party only won 16% of the Quebec vote in last year’s federal election, meaning Harper has actually made negative progress since winning his third term last spring."

    Is that notably unusual? Parties in government see their poll ratings drop, that's what being in government is for.

  18. Kadin

    "the province swang erratically to the NDP, just as its popularity was declining elsewhere"

    You mean "just as its popularity was increasing elsewhere"? The NDP's vote in the ROC was up 9% over the 2008 election to 26.3%, and they picked up extra seats to boot.

  19. Sebastien Cormier

    Want it or not, a big problem in Canada is that not only the east and west cultures are literally foreigns, born from feuding monarchies and have contrasting weathers… the vast majority will never even see one another. Directly or indirectly.

    Take Alberta and Quebec, the two biggest feuding groups as far I know. They are mainly composed of static, cultually inbreeding relatively poor rural communities separated by a distance about as big as the whole of europe mainland. Now while one can cross europe in car and have a blast… crossing canada is an utterly soulcrushing empty highway in comparison. So hardly any incentive.

    And there's the fact that they each sides aren't generally even able talk to each other even if they wanted.

    So the only information about each other they get is hearsay. And each have blamed the other for all their woes. Especially quebec, who still blames "all 'dem englishmen" for their treatment during the industrial revolution, and then being drafted into a war for a queen we never cared for… and things like that.

    Hell, the three hour ride between Quebec and Montreal is enough to cause MASSIVE unwarranted tug-o-war bigotry and hatred between the two cities, leading to sayings such as "To be sunny in Montreal it has be raining in Quebec"

    So it's easy to imagine what a two week ride can do.

  20. Alinnnna

    Hell, the three hour ride between Quebec and Montreal is enough to cause MASSIVE unwarranted tug-o-war bigotry and hatred between the two cities, leading to sayings such as "To be sunny in Montreal it has be raining in Quebec"

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