On his way to winning the Conservative leadership, Erin O’Toole decisively beat his rivals in Quebec. But their battle was fought in a field of ruins.
In the big picture, the campaign in Quebec to succeed Andrew Scheer took place in closed circuit, at a potentially unbridgeable distance from the province’s political mainstream.
Year in and year out, more than 90 per cent of Quebecers tell pollsters that fluency in French and English is an essential requirement for anyone seeking a position of national leadership.
The consensus on the need for a division between church and state is stronger in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada.
Against that backdrop, the combined first-ballot showing in Quebec of 20 per cent support for Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, both unilingual and both backed by the anti-abortion lobby, speaks volumes about the disconnect between the flagging Quebec wing that O’Toole has inherited and the province’s electorate.
The singularity of the results did not prevent veteran MP Pierre Poilievre from suggesting that a blue wave could be in the making in Quebec.
If only because his Ottawa seat is geographically close to the action in the province next door, he should know better. One can only hope Poilievre – in his current role as finance critic – brings more rigour to his analysis of Canada’s fiscal outlook.
Of more than 170,000 Conservative party members who cast a ballot in last week’s election, fewer than 8,000 were from Quebec. And while the party added thousands of members in the rest of the country over the course of the race, the opposite happened in Canada’s second-largest province.
The number of Quebec members who cast a ballot shrank by 21 per cent between the vote for a successor to Stephen Harper in 2017 and the latest leadership tally.
There is more at play here than the absence of a native son candidate from the 2020 lineup.
Between the last two Conservative leadership campaigns, the Bloc Quebecois has risen from the ashes. By all appearances, its return to relative strength last fall was not a one-election wonder.
In a federal election this fall, polls show that the Quebec battle would be a two-way fight between the Liberals and the BQ.
In the last Leger sounding this week, the Conservatives had 16 per cent support, lagging 16 points behind their sovereigntist rivals and less than a handful of points ahead of the New Democrats.
When the Bloc does well, the Liberals tend to do better in Quebec than the Conservatives and the New Democrats. That dynamic has been in evidence for much of the sovereigntist party’s 30-year existence.
It’s particularly true in the case of the Conservatives, whose modest zones of influence in Quebec are all located outside Montreal, in Bloc-friendly francophone territory.
As often as not, the BQ helps keep the Liberals’ rivals for federal power at bay. And that is just fine in the eye of the many Bloc supporters, who deserted the party for the NDP and the Liberals in 2011 and 2015 primarily in an attempt to oust Harper’s Conservatives from power.
In a federal election that could take place as early as this year, the path to power for O’Toole is unlikely to run through Quebec.
At the same time, national polls and the leadership vote results suggest there is not an easily available alternative route through Ontario, or at least not absent a stronger NDP.
In the past, Conservative victories have often come hand-in-hand with a healthy showing for the New Democrats, at the Liberals’ expense. It is not a coincidence that Quebec’s orange wave in 2011 came in tandem with a Conservative majority government.
As O’Toole takes command of the official Opposition, the stars are far from aligned in favour of his party. And the challenging arithmetic involved in achieving a Conservative victory, let alone a majority, has consequences that go beyond the vote count on election night.
For instance, more than a few Conservatives believe O’Toole needs to reach beyond the confines of his caucus for star economic candidates. Some argue that would make it easier to exploit incoming finance minister Chrystia Freeland’s lack of corporate credentials.
Others simply feel no one in the current Conservative caucus inspires the level of confidence that would bolster the party’s case that it is best placed to navigate the troubled fiscal waters of the post-pandemic era.
But here’s the rub: The men and women who could make up a high-profile Conservative economic dream team to attract voters in Ontario and Quebec are more likely to be found in the Conservative electoral wasteland of Toronto and Montreal, where they risk being unelectable, than in the party’s heartland.
Chantal Hebert is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.