Poll after poll shows that a large majority of francophone Quebecers have little commitment to Canada as their nation. Consequently, they view politics through the lens of getting as much influence and benefit for their province and, by extension, for themselves, as possible. This goes far to explaining their support for the Bloc Québécois. In a fractured Parliament where no individual party can claim a clear majority outside the Bloc, they are in a powerful position to extract concessions from the rest of Canada no matter who forms the (minority) government. The past two Conservative minorities have been able mitigate this to a degree by relying on one or another of the other parties (Liberal or NDP) to pass legislation on a case by case basis. A Liberal/NDP alliance or a Liberal minority would, by contrast, be totally dependent on the Bloc’s support to remain in power or get anything done.
However, as a rallying cry, ‘what’s in it for me’ hardly resonates. That’s why support for the Bloc is a mile wide but an inch deep. This is shown by the fact that the Bloc collects comparatively little money from private donors. For example, the Bloc collected just 17 per cent of its money from voluntary contributions in 2010 (and 83 per cent public money) compared to the NDP and Liberals, at 47 per cent voluntary and 57 per cent public, or the Conservatives with 62 per cent private and 38 per cent public, in the same year. Clearly Liberal, NDP and, particularly, Conservative supporters are far more committed to their respective causes than those behind the Bloc.
Quebecers seem to be torn about the best method to influence Canadian politics. For many years they saw having powerful ministers (including, of course, the Prime Minister) in one of the national parties as the route to power. When it became evident that a new party was going to sweep the rest of Canada (e.g. the Diefenbaker or Mulroney sweeps), they could switch parties suddenly and en masse. More recently, they have tried Quebec dominated parties beginning with the Créditistes in the 1960s. For a short period in the early 1960’s the Créditistes held the balance of power in the House of Commons and helped bring down John Diefenbaker’s minority Conservative government. However, with the emerging dominance of the Pearson/Trudeau Liberals, their influence and numbers declined and Quebecers resumed the pattern of electing members in the dominant party.
The Bloc was formed (by Lucien Bouchard after the Meech Lake failure) at a propitious time. Politics in the rest of Canada were fracturing with the reduction of the Progressives Conservative Party to a rump and the rise of the Reform/Alliance Party to take their place in the west. Quebecers found they preferred a party whose only purpose was to promote their interests to representation in one of the Federalist parties where their interests were subject to murky back-room wheeling and dealing. The support of the Provincial Parti Quebecois helped, along with the fact that their representatives in the Federalist parties tended to start identifying themselves with the whole country rather than with Quebec interests exclusively.
Nonetheless, the predominance of the federal Liberals and marginalization of the Bloc led to the slow erosion of their support during the Chrétien ascendancy with the Liberals actually winning more seats in Quebec than the Bloc for the first time in the 2000 election. The fate of the Créditistes loomed. The Sponsorship scandal saved the Bloc for two reasons. It discredited the Liberals both in Quebec and the rest of Canada and started the slow erosion of Liberal hegemony. The rise of the Conservatives also gave the Bloc the position of holding the balance of power in Parliament.
I believe this election may mark the beginning of the end for the Bloc. If, as seems possible, the rest of Canada elects a Conservative majority with minimal Quebec representation, the notion that the Bloc has a decisive part to play in any national government of whatever complexion will be discredited and the usefulness of the party diminished. The Conservatives will also be able to implement their promise of eliminating public financial support for political parties. This will eliminate 83% of Bloc funding. The Bloc has never had a serious fund-raising arm. Creating one will be a long and arduous process (just ask the Liberals) and the Bloc may run out of time before getting the job done.
Quebecers may decide that electing representatives of the mainstream federalist parties will, in the end, be the best way to protect their interests in the Canadian political process and our politics may return to normal.