Monday, January 16, 2012

On new challenges

Every so often, it seems to be necessary to remind the pundit class that there isn't a reset button that will magically restore Canadian politics to where they were three or four election cycles ago. So let's take a look at the theory that the Bloc should be the favourite to re-emerge as the main force in Quebec federal politics.

During the election campaign, I discussed how the Bloc ended up where they were for the past two decades. But a quick refresher may be in order.

As of 1993, the three major federal parties had essentially lashed themselves together on the major issue discussed in the previous term of office. And that gave the Bloc a chance to emerge by running against effectively the entire Canadian establishment.

Once the 1995 referendum was in the rear-view mirror, however, the Bloc recognized that it would need to stand for more than sovereignty alone. And so it developed a strategy of running hard against the government of the day (which was always its strongest Quebec opponent) and serving as an opposition on behalf of Quebec alone.

That strategy was highly effective at stoking frustration against sitting governments. But in the last few election cycles, it proved somewhat vulnerable when competing opposition parties entered the picture: in 2006 the Cons did better than anticipated as the Bloc hammered away at Lib scandals, and in 2008 the Libs managed to gain ground as the Bloc launched its culture war against Stephen Harper.

And then there was 2011. For entirely rational reasons, both the Libs and Cons largely took a pass on trying for major growth in Quebec - leading the Bloc to think it might have a particularly easy election. But this time, the Bloc's focus on Harper proved all too successful, establishing a need for change on behalf of a party which couldn't plausibly offer it.

Naturally the Bloc tried to change course - first by running against the NDP, then by changing the subject back to sovereignty. But it nearly got wiped off the map despite those efforts, and has shown no sign of regaining any momentum.

But that isn't even the worst of the Bloc's problems. Instead, it's this: the strategies that worked for the Bloc in the past now figure to be entirely off the table.

No, the Bloc can't just run against the government of the day - since the NDP (and indeed the Libs) figures to benefit at least as much from dissatisfaction with the Cons.

What about a 1993-style assault on the federalist parties and system generally? Well, to get any traction, the Bloc will have to put together a narrative that involves agreement or non-differentiation between the Cons, NDP and Libs on issues controversial enough to get the Quebec public riled up. And while anything can happen, it's hard to see how that scenario is about to develop with the Cons looking to impose their will through a majority government, the NDP looking to distinguish itself as the opposition and the Libs looking for unexplored terrain of their own.

In effect, the Bloc has always succeeded by overwhelming a single national opponent which bears the burden of government in a one-province, one-front battle. But there's no way they're avoiding a multi-front challenge in 2015 - and starting from a tenth of their former caucus size and a dwindling membership will only make that challenge all the more difficult.

Again, a lot can change in four years, and I wouldn't rule the Bloc out by any means. But in ranking the threats to the NDP's current Quebec seats, I'd be hesitant to rank them any higher than second (behind a Con government using the spoils of power to pursue new target groups) - and would think it's at least as likely that the Bloc will give up the ghost entirely as that it'll hold the largest Quebec caucus after 2015.

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